How to Grow Your Own Barley

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Botanical Name: Hordeum vulgare
Plant Type: annual grass
USDA Zone: 3–9
Height: 2–3 feet
Soil: well-draining, fertile loam
Light: full sun
Water: moist soil during germination, drier as the crop reaches harvest
Growth Habit: grassy
Propagate By: seed. Some varieties are spring-planted and some are fall-planted. Use 4 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. Seed can be scattered by hand or by a broadcast seeder; rake into the top 1–2 inches. Keep soil moist during germination.
Spacing: Scatter seed across a fallow bed, or sow in the rows with twenty– twenty-five seeds per foot.
Months to Bearing: two months once growth begins in spring.
Pruning: none
Harvest: spring-sown barley matures in about 70 days; fall-planted barley ripens about 60 days after growth resumes in the spring. Reap when barley is dry. Cut, bundle, and shock (stack upright in bundles) to dry.
Notes: Barley comes in two distinct types: two-row or six-row. The type you choose will depend, in part, on your region.
Best Used In: beer


If hops are the heart of beer, barley is its backbone. And for good reason: Barley is an alcohol alchemist. No other cereal grain contains as much of the fermentation- friendly enzymes that break down grains’ stored starches into the sugars required for turning seeds into beer, whiskey, and other spirits. Barley’s effect is so powerful that it acts as a catalyst to ferment other, less endowed, grains such as wheat, rice, rye, corn, oats, and millet.

Growing your own backyard barley may sound hardcore, but it’s actually surprisingly easy. Barley, Hordeum vulgare, is a forgiving crop in northern climates. In addition, it is high yielding, matures early, and is widely adapted to all but the hottest and driest conditions. It is an annual crop that completes its entire life cycle within a year—usually sprouting in spring and seeding (and dying) in summer. If well sited and well tended, a 10×10-foot barley bed can deliver 5 to 15 pounds of grain, enough for one or two 5-gallon batches of all-grain brew, or a dozen or more batches of partial mash. A plot of this size will require ½ to ¾ pound of seed. The thicker the seeding, the less room there will be for weeds.

Perhaps the hardest part of growing barley is deciding which kind to grow. Two-row or six-row? Bearded or beardless? Hulled or hull-less? Really, the number of choices seems excessive.

“Beard” refers to the 3-inch bristle that extends from each seed. For the homegrower, the presence or absence of a beard is important mainly in that the bristles can be irritating to exposed hands and arms. They are also irritating to livestock and, on the plus side, deer. Hull-less is a misnomer as this kind of barley does have hulls, but they drop away at threshing. The advantage of hull-less barley is that no special processing is needed to remove the hulls. This is good not only because the process is outside the ability of most backyard growers, but de-hulling hulled barley also removes much of the nutritional value of the grain.

Your choice between growing two-row or six-row barley may come down to where you live. The designations refer to the number of rows of seeds on the seedhead: two-row barley has a row lined up neatly on either side of the center stem; six-row barley has—as billed—six rows that encircle the stem. Six-row barley is a deviation, a mutation of the ancestral two-row grain. Two-row is generally favored for malting and brewing, but it grows best where nights are cool. Two-row barley can handle hot days, but needs time to recover when the sun goes down. This makes it a good choice for coastal areas and much of the West, including Montana, Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, and British Columbia. Six-row barley thrives in climates that exhaust two-row varieties. It is the barley of choice in the Midwest and Mexico. Six-row barley can be grown in any region where two-row barley does well. To find out which barleys are best suited to your locale, inquire at local feed stores or your regional Cooperative Extension agency.

Although new hybrids have closed the gap in quality between two- and six-row barleys, differences in protein and enzyme levels still exist. Two-row barley contains more starch, making it ideal for brewing and distilling. However, it also has less enzymatic power to break down those starches into simple, fermentable sugars during the mash phase. Six-row barleys traditionally contain less starch, but tend to yield more wort-soluble protein. Both types come in a range of beard and hull styles. Choose your barley based on your personal taste: every cultivar, whether six-row or two-row, infuses its own distinctive flavor, aroma, and color in beer.

Just when you thought the decisions were over, you must now decide whether to plant your barley in spring or fall. In regions where winter temperatures regularly dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, fall planting isn’t an option, but in warmer zones, barley can be sown in September or October (at least four weeks before the first expected frost), overwintered, and grown on for an early summer harvest, usually sixty days after growth resumes. In all regions, spring plantings can be made in March or April for harvest approximately seventy days later. Certain types of barley are better adapted for either spring or fall planting.

Any good, fertile garden soil in a sunny site should produce a barley harvest with bragging rights. Seed can be scattered by hand or with a broadcast seeder. Rake the seed into the top inch of soil and water it in. Continue watering throughout summer until the plants begin to change color from green to tan. Allow the stalks to dry to honey brown. When the heads have turned golden, test to see if the grain can be easily pulled from the plant and has hardened to the point it can barely be dented by a fingernail. If so, it’s time to harvest.

For the backyard farmer, a sharp hand sickle or a power trimmer with a string or blade attachment is the simplest tool for cutting the stalks. If using a hand sickle, hold the stalks with one hand and swing the blade with the other. Lay the stalks neatly along the ground as you go, with the heads in the same direction. If anyone asks, you can sound like a professional if you tell them you are making windrows. Likewise, when using a power trimmer, the goal is to cut the stalks so that they fall into windrows.

Now the barley will need to dry for approximately a week to ten days or until the grain can be shaken from the stalks. If you feel lucky, and live where rain is unlikely, you may simply let cut stalks lie. If wet weather looms, cover the stalks with a tarp. In damper areas, and for Norman Rockwell photo opportunities, stack your harvest into shocks. Simply tie the stalks into 12-inch bundles or sheaves. The sheaves are then stacked upright in teepee fashion in groups of twelve or more, forming the shocks. If hungry birds threaten your crop, cover the shock tops with fine netting or light cheesecloth.

Threshing, Winnowing, and Storing

Threshing means separating the grain from the stalks. Winnowing is a technique for separating the chaff (bits of stalk and other debris) from the grain. Threshing requires muscle. Winnowing requires finesse. Both require patience. The two simplest methods by which the home gardener can thresh their barley are flailing and bucketing. Flailing is traditionally accomplished with a two-piece, wooden flail; however, for small harvests, the process works almost as well with a broom handle, plastic baseball bat, or other such stick (and removes the danger of concussing yourself with a badly aimed flail strike). Lay the sheaves on a dropcloth or bed sheet on a garage floor or asphalt driveway. Aim your threshing implement at the seedheads and whack away. Each sheaf should release a cup or two of barley.

Traditional threshing involves a good deal of manual labor

Bucketing requires only a clean 5- gallon bucket or garbage can. In this version of threshing, handfuls of harvested barley are held head-side down and beaten against the inside of the container. This method can take less time than flailing, but results in more chaff mixed with the grain, which will take more time in winnowing.

Winnowing uses wind, whether provided solely by nature or assisted by a fan or blow dryer. In winnowing, the grain is simply poured slowly back and forth between two containers. The heavier grain will fall into the receiving bucket while the wind blows away the chaff. Winnowing won’t completely clean the grain; you’ll need to pick out any debris heavier than chaff.

The easiest, most sure-fire way to store grain is in resealable bags in the freezer. Barley will maintain its quality for a year or more when frozen. In lieu of freezing, barley can be kept in airtight containers at a constant temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler in a dry, dark place such as a cellar. It can be kept this way for up to six months if the grains are put away absolutely dry. Any moisture in dry-stored barley will result in rancid seed and a quick ticket to the compost heap.

Talk Barley like a Pro

Bearded: a type of barley with a 3-inch, stiff, hair-like bristle extending from each grain of a barley seedhead. These bristles are properly called awns.

Flail: a threshing tool consisting of a wooden staff of about 3 feet long with a short heavy stick of about 2 feet swinging from it by a leather thong or metal rings

Hulled: barley with a hard, inedible hull surrounding each grain. Hull-less varieties actually have a loosely attached hull that falls away during threshing.

Malt: raw grain that has been soaked in water, allowed to germinate, and is ready for use in brewing and distilling

Mash: crushed malt steeped in hot water to form wort

Sheaf: a bundle of cereal grains harvested, but not yet threshed

Shock: a group of sheaves of grain placed on end with the seed-ends leaning against each other

Threshing: knocking grains off their stalks

Two-row vs. six-row: two different barley forms. Two-row barley has two rows of grains, one on either side of the stem. Six-row barley has six rows of grains encircling the stem. The two forms have slightly different ratios of proteins and enzymes that give them different roles in brewing. These ratios are also dependent on the specific barley cultivar.

Winnowing: pouring threshed grain back and forth between two containers repeatedly to allow the chaff to be blown away by wind, or a fan or blow dryer

Wort: unfermented beer. Technically, wort is the sweet liquid that comes from mash.

More from Gardening for the Homebrewer

Reprinted with permission from Gardening for the Homebrewer by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon and published by Voyageur Press, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Gardening for the Homebrewer.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.