it’s edemental! gorgeous, delicious grains for the garden, with sarah kleeger

I’M CURRENTLY captivated by thoughts of gorgeous grains and grain-like annuals adding drama to my upcoming garden, and at the same time potentially feeding me and my beloved bird friends. Sarah Kleeger, of Adaptive Seeds in Oregon, has a passion for these dual-purpose, edible ornamentals like sorghum, millet, amaranth, and more.

Sarah, with Andrew Still, founded Adaptive Seeds in 2009 as a farm-based, organic seed company where they grow and harvest more than 80 percent of the seed they sell, including a beautiful assortment of grains and grain-like annuals that were the subject of our conversation.

We talked about high-yielding and statuesque sorghum—perfect for porridge or even popcorn-style—and amaranths in a range of colors, plus flowering oil-seed crops like sunflowers, poppy seed, Camelina, and flax. We even got into some hints on cover-cropping for soil-building.

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 28, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


grains and grain-like annuals, with adaptive seeds

Q. For listeners who missed our previous conversations on growing dry beans—one of my favorite foods of all—and growing peppers, and kale, those have been really popular, and thank you for teaching me so much already. I’m looking forward to more teaching now, today, thank you, on grains, so some of the listeners who didn’t hear those, or heard those a while back, may not remember the story of Adaptive Seeds, and what you and Andrew set out to do there. Could we have sort of the brief elevator pitch of Adaptive? [Laughter.]

A. Sure, well we are a certified organic, farm-based seed company. We’re based near Sweet Home, Oregon, just about two hours south of Portland, and we like to say that one of our goals is bringing biodiversity back to agriculture, and we do this by promoting sort of less common crops, and less common varieties. So we really try hard to have offerings in our collection that are not available elsewhere, and we strongly believe that this adds to the resilience of the food system. [More on that in the video up top.]

Q. So big goals, and wonderful things, unusual things, each with a special story behind it about where you founded, and who shared it with you, and so forth—sort of a provenance, which I love. Reading the descriptions in your catalog, they are very unusual often. So when I looked at the catalog recently, you know, I was really taken by a photo of, you know, I was looking online I guess, so I looked at this photo of a seed head of, I think, it was a foxtail millet, maybe, called ‘Hells Canyon.’ [Photo above.] Is that a name, or did I make that up? ‘Hells Canyon’? [Laughter.]

A. No, that is one of the varieties we offer.

Q. Yes and I paged through, and from there I kind of clicked through, and I thought, oh it’s in the grains category of things, and grain-like offerings, and I thought, why aren’t I growing more of these? They’re sort of really bold-looking ornamentals, but they also have this food value, so what drew you, or you and Andrew, into growing them, and collecting them?

A. Well, I think garden production of staple food crops is something that’s possible. If we look worldwide, you know, the things that westerners think of as staple food crops are corn, and wheat, and just traditional grains. But worldwide there are actually quite a few other things that people have depended upon for centuries, and in the face of a changing climate, I think, a lot of these other types of grains are going to become more important.

Millet is really an excellent example of a crop that can grow really quickly with minimal water. It is a little bit of a challenge to eat it, because it is wrapped with a hull, but there are ways that traditional cultures have gotten around that. And I think, you know, depending on how creative you want to be, there’s really a lot of possibilities out there with these other sorts of grains.

Q. So it really speaks to what you said about your mission in resilient crops, and diversity, and so forth as well. So grain: when I wrote to you and I said I want to do a thing about grains, how I loved looking at them in your catalog. And you emailed back, and you said “also the pseudo-grains.” [Laughter.] You sort of, not corrected me, but you know what I mean, made it more specific, and so let’s just talk about what’s a grain, and what’s not a grain. What’s a cereal, and what’s a pseudo-cereal? Is that sort of how we break them down, I guess? So I guess, botanically, what, the grains are in the Poaceae, is that how I say it? Like wheat?

A. Yes I’ve been informed that any Latin name you just say it, and that’s the right way.

Q. Yes, it was not a spoken language. It was a written language among scientists, right? Yes, exactly.

A. But you’re exactly right, so grains are traditionally the cereal grasses, so they’re monocots generally.

Q. Yes.

A. So when they germinate they just send up one leaf. So wheat, and rye, and all of those sorts of more traditional grains as well as corn, and sorghum, rice, and teff. Those are all…

Q. Oh, teff?

A. … within the grass family, so they’re grains. The pseudo-cereal grains are dicots, so I know they’re the ones that I recommend more for the home garden, or homestead garden scale. So that’s amaranth, and quinoa, and then as well there’s the oil-seed grains, which include sunflowers, and poppy seed, Camelina [above], and flax, so any of these high-protein, high-calorie crops.

Q. O.K., and so like buckwheat is a pseudo-cereal grain, right? That’s not a real grain, either. That’s another one, and sometimes that’s used for other things like cover-cropping, for instance, but it’s not really a grain, but it’s sort of lumped in there. Is millet a true grass? I think millet may be an actual grass. It’s a true grain?

A. It is.

Q. Yes, O.K., so that’s good. So, you know, when I looked at the catalog, of course, as usual, Margaret wanted them all. [Laughter.] So rather than that, maybe we could talk about … and by the way, you also, I noticed, sell some of the true grains, like barley, and wheat, and so forth, presumably to other farmers or larger-scale operations. But where would we start? You said that the pseudo ones are probably more appropriate for home gardeners. Are there ones that you started with, and sort of learned on, or that are easier? How shall we begin?

A. My favorite to start with is amaranth. I think it’s probably the most accessible. It’s the most beautiful, and so as far as serving the dual purpose of, some would say, “edemental” crops. [Above, ‘Sunset Goldilocks’ amaranth.]

Q. Edemental? Did you just make that up, or… [laughter].

A. You know, I did not make that up. I wish I did, but you know, it’s edible as well as ornamental. Amaranths, like quinoa, and a couple of the others, you can eat the leaves as well as the grains once you harvest it. The amaranth comes in just a wide array of colors and flowering types, and many of the flowering types have a grain that is suitable to then harvest, and process for food.

Not all amaranths are like this. There’s a white-seeded type, and a black-seeded type, and the black-seeded types are less good for eating as a crop. But you know, they’re quick to mature, they’re easy to thresh, they’re relatively high-yielding.

Q. And they’re gorgeous. I mean, so people may know the “ornamental” love lies bleeding, right? The one with sort of purplish, wine-ish colored tassels, or whatever we… I don’t know what we call them. But in your catalog you have a coral one, and a copper one, and a sort of reddish-gold one, and one that’s marbled in color, like I think it’s called ‘Rio San Lorenzo,’ is that right? [Photo below.]

A. Yes.

Q. And so, you said they’re fast, but they get quite big, don’t they?

A. They do, and a lot of that depends on how they’re grown. So for our own production, we think fewer plants, larger plants, easier to care for, less processing in the end. We like to grow these things about 1-foot spacing in row, and then our rows are 2 feet apart, so they can get up to 6 feet tall, and just be almost as large as a Christmas tree-

Q. [Laughter.]

A. …or in some places people would just direct sow them a few inches apart, and then you have a lot of much smaller plants. So there’s a wide variation of what these plants can do, given the resources.

Q. Do I sow them indoors first, and get a head start? Are you direct sowing? What do you recommend for a gardener getting started with these?

A. Well, we really strongly prefer to sow indoors, and we do that around mid-April, and our goal is to plant them out around mid-May, and that gives us a chance to get a head start on weeds. We really like transplanting around here because our weed seed bank is fairly large, and as you may know, amaranth is a common garden weed. It’s a different species, the garden weed, also known as pigweed.

Q. Yes.

A. So it can be hard to tell them apart when they’re very young.

Q. Oh, dear. [Laughter.]

A. And the same goes with quinoa; it looks a lot like wild lamb’s quarters, but like transplanting, we know where the plants are. They’re significantly larger.

Q. So you’re giving them about a month indoors, I think, you were saying, the seedlings, and you said mid-May set out. Now when’s your frost date, just so I’m sort of in tune with that. Mine is more like the third week or fourth week of May, third week of May. When’s your frost date?

A. Officially it’s mid-May.

Q. O.K., so you’re [transplanting] around the frost date, but are these tender, frost-tender, or can they take a little cool weather? Do you think the babies…

A. I think that they are frost-tender. That’s such a great question.

Q. So you’re putting it out right around the frost date, so that you’re basically safe-ish, right?

A. Right, I mean, these are plants that love warm weather, and warm soil, and so I don’t think that you would really gain much if you planted them much earlier.

Q. Yes, so that’s the kind of schedule of like a tomato for me. I do the same kind of thing, although I might give them six weeks or so inside, or maybe these as well. I don’t know, but O.K., so that’s good, and like you said, the spacing allows the plants to reach full stature, so if I, for instance, wanted to use them for drama. I mean, they would be great, maybe with like sunflowers, or other statuesque things, right, of some height, know what I mean? If I use them in the ornamental sense.

A. Right, absolutely. And amaranth has the added bonus of, it’s not only an excellent cut flower, but also performs really well as an everlasting, or dried, flower if you harvest it at the right moment.

Q. So maybe we shouldn’t say dual-purpose. Maybe we should say triple-purpose, right?

A. Or quadruple, if you think about eating the leaves as well.

Q. Oh my goodness. [Above, the colorful leaves of Taiwanese quinoa are edible, too, like the amaranths.]

A. It’s all things to all people.

Q. [Laughter.] Oh my goodness, so we’re starting with amaranths, and we’ll take a look at some of those, and as I said, the color range—that’s what kind of got me excited because the love lies bleeding-ish color doesn’t really work for me, but some of those even warmer colors that you had, kind of coral-y and coppery. Those I think would, and that was what kind of caught my eye. So what would be sort of the next one that you would want us to give a look to?

A. Well, I think, from the perspective of someone who’s really more into the ornamental aspect, I think probably the more oil-seed grains, the flowering ones. The sunflowers yield a great seed that’s edible. Poppies, so we offer two varieties: the traditional breadseed poppies, that’s the blue-purple one, as well as we have a white-seeded one that’s also really quite delicious, a nice, nutty flavor. And then flax, and Camelina. Camelina is a brassica relative, it’s a yellow-flowered oil-seed. So yes, things that are just both beautiful for the pollinators, as well as can provide a little supplemental staple food for the gardener as well. [Above, ‘Elka White’ poppy. Below, ‘Foster’ flax in bloom.]

Q. Yes. I guess I forgot to say… Well I mentioned in the beginning about like birds. Is one of the things about growing the amaranth that you have to… Do the birds go after it if it’s ripening up in the field, or it’s not a problem? I wasn’t sure. I’ve never grown it.

A. We have a little bit of bird depredation on our amaranth, but we like to plant it next to other crops that birds prefer, and that’s always, as a seed-production farm, we’re always kind of trying to balance that, and we have the American goldfinch here, we have a lot of sparrows, and finches, and so they really love millet.

Q. That’s what I would think, that they’d be crazy for millet, which of course, the proso I think, millets, which aren’t the ones with the big fox tail-y-like heads, right? That’s in the sort of lower-end bird seed mixes, I think, is what’s in it. [Above, ‘Aukses’ millet head.]

A. Right, and they’ll go for any millet that they can get, so right, there are the sprays that are sold as bird food if you’ve ever had a parakeet.

Q. Yes, I have seen those [laughter].

A. People, I think, are most familiar with millet as a bird food.

Q. Are any of the quinoas particularly showy, or is that not sort of… Is that more for eating?

A. There are a few varieties of quinoa that are more diverse in colors. I think they’re quite beautiful, but not in a cut flower sort of way, although I’ve heard of some seed companies promoting quinoa as a cut flower, so maybe that’s a beauty is in the eye of the beholder sort of…

Q. Uh-huh, and with those… well maybe I’ll first ask about the sorghums because those are… That can be big, too, yes? Like statuesque? Can the sorghum be big?

A. Oh yes, usually they’re quite tall. We have one that was like 13 feet tall this year, and the frost was coming, and we were trying to wrestle some fabric over the top of it, and it didn’t quite work out. [Laughter.] Yes, sorghum is another really great crop. It does get quite tall. It’s taller than most varieties of corn most of the time, and the grain types yield about a half a pound per head…

Q. Wow. [Above, Ba Ye Qi sorghum.]

A. … and so just as far as yield for our kitchen goes, it’s quite high-yielding, and also sorghum grain can be popped, kind of like popcorn, it can be milled, it can be cooked up like a porridge. It’s pretty accessible in the kitchen.

Q. Yes, I was interested to read in the catalog in some of the descriptions how many things you personally do use, make flour from, bake with, etc., so you really… Again, people can come at these as beautiful, but they can, as ornamental, but they’re certainly, as you said, staples around the world in different cultures. Some of these grains and pseudo-grains. You just gave us some examples with the sorghum. With the amaranth, do you do similar things with that?

A. Amaranth I really like to add to breads, and make bread every week, so a lot of these grains I’ll just throw a little bit into my weekly loaf of bread, but amaranth actually cooks up pretty similarly to quinoa or rice, and it’s actually higher in protein than quinoa, at 9 grams per cup, so it’s pretty-

Q. Wow.

A. …great in that way, and then, you know, once it’s cooked it can just be eaten plain as if it were rice, or integrated into other things. Like we added some to some squash fritters recently that were pretty good.

Q. Now say with the sorghum, the millets. Are you also transplanting? You’re starting them indoors, or any special things to know if we’re going to, you know, buy a pack of seed and get started with them as gardeners?

A. Yes, the quinoa and the sorghum, we plant just exactly like that amaranth. We’re sowing mid-April, planting out mid-May. Some of them, like the sorghum, would probably be fine if it were direct-seeded, but in addition to the weed problem, we have a lot of little critters that we share our farm with that are very interested in large-seeded, sprouting crops, so…

Q. Oh gosh, that’s never happened to me with peas, or beans, or corn, or anything Sarah, or pumpkins, or cucumbers, never! [Laughter.]

A. Right [laughter].

Q. How is it that they know the minute that we’ve sown a whole row of some large-seeded crop? How is it that they know? Do they watch us? [Laughter.]

A. Yes, I’m pretty sure. I’m pretty sure they’re watching at all times.

Q. Oh my goodness.

A. Things like the flax and poppies are way better if they’re direct-sown, and…

Q. Right, right, yes. I agree. I mean, the best way to get poppies is to have even one survive, and do its own thing, and let it tell you where it wants to grow, you know? I mean, yes, self-sowers are great.

I also dug into the beautiful range of corn offerings on the website in terms of colors, and that’s a true grain, and you know, rather than talk about those too much, except to say you need a little more space for those, right? You need to sort of do a block of it, I think, to have success? [Above ‘Open Oak Party Mix’ dent corn.]

A. So for pollination, it’s recommended that you have a pretty good block of it, but it’s not absolutely necessary, and probably at least 20 plants would get you good pollination. Corns are really great. I mean, popcorn is so accessible. Just grow it, shell it, pop it, and it’s easy to clean, it’s easy to work with. I think that’s a great entry point for corn as a grain in the home garden.

Q. I just wanted to say, I know you don’t sell cover-crop seed, generally speaking, on the website. But you’re organic farmers, and so soil is your key resource, and cover-cropping is such an important part of any, you know, organic soil management practice, so I’m assuming you use various things, including perhaps some grains, and some who knows what? Legumes, I don’t know.

Anything about just sort of the pitch for cover-cropping, because it’s something, you know, I always grew up learning about it as called green-manuring, sort of a hippie term. It’s so important, and yet, so few home gardeners, I think, really do it, but how about you guys?

A. Oh, yes, cover-cropping is really integral to our system, and you’re right, sometimes for our summer cover-cropping, we use a sorghum-Sudangrass hybrid, or buckwheat, and these are integrated back into the soil, and have a lot of benefits. The buckwheat, when it’s flowering, is just really great for pollinators as well as…

Q. It’s amazing, yes.

A. … suppressing weeds, and holding on to the nitrogen so it doesn’t run off. In the wintertime, we usually plant a mixture of rye or triticale, and actually our first grain crop that we ever harvested was just a rye cover crop that we decided to let go.

And also if you do plant cover crops, and don’t cut them down on time, they function good as bird food. I’ve seen farmers cut them for bouquets of grain bundles.

Q. I mean it’s a lot of possibilities, both with the grains, the pseudo-grains, and with a good cover-cropping program. I’m glad to speak to you, and as I said, I had a good time with the catalog. It got me thinking of some new ideas for some certain places in the garden, so maybe I’ll send you some snapshots later on. [Laughter.]

A. That’s be so great. Well, it’s been a pleasure Margaret, and thanks again or having me on.

my past chats with adaptive seeds and more from them

(Photos courtesy of Adaptive Seeds. Used with permission.) Below, millet laid out to dry on tarps, before and after threshing.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Jan. 21, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Laurie A says:

    Great information. Besides corn and beans, I’ve tried growing amaranth a few times, without success. I will look at the catalog, to see if I can find what I might have done wrong. I’d love to try several of the other grains as well. I believe sorghum was traditionally grown here (North Carolina).

    1. margaret says:

      I definitely am going to start indoors and transplant. The sorghum is positively architectural…trying to figure out where to have some fun with it in my overstuffed garden.

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know why in all my years of growing things I have never really explored these beauties. Maybe 2019 is the year for both of us to? : )

  2. Ann Lamb says:

    Think I still have in the freezer the amaranth I grew years ago. The problem was, the threshed grain was what seemed 50-50 tiny bugs about the size of the seed, and they were “sticky” enough not to be gotten rid of in threshing. Tennessee is much buggier than Oregon. How would they handle such problems?

  3. Blythe says:

    Loved this interview and love Adaptive Seeds! I tried growing a multi-colored quinoa one year, which did great, and I think I will try to make room for it again. It is now being grown organically on a commercial scale here in NW Washington (zone 8b) by Nash’s Organic Produce, a well-known farmer in our area who has done a lot of experimenting with bringing grains back into production in our region (mild wet winters; relatively cool but dry summers). I also grow a lot of the purple goosefoot, Chenopodium giganteum, which has gone a bit feral but is quite beautiful and has so many uses. I like to grow things for the birds, but you have to be careful how you store them so they don’t get moldy and so other critters don’t get into it. I’m glad to see they have flax for making linen. Have been wanting to try that. Thanks again! Inspirational interview with a great seed company!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cynthia. Yes, they can. I think the trick is catching them when they look good but have not gone too far in their seed development so that the seed is ready to let go. I think you probably would have to do a little homework about each genus about the ideal timing and handling.

  4. Heidi Husnak says:

    Great interview and information. I accidentally grew millet one year. It self started from those pet shop sprays in one of my aviaries. A neighbor would interplant sunflowers and amaranth (big purple-wine one) and it was a treat to walk past his house. I did the big seed sunflowers one year. Gorgeous but ravaged by those dang Eastern non native squirrels. They were adjacent to the driveway and myb car was always littered with hulls.

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like you had quite the wildlife thing going on! :) Yes, squirrels seem to know just when to show up and grab everything, don’t they?

  5. Laura Thorne says:

    Darn it! I thought I finished my seed ordering, but now I feel compelled to try at least a few of these grains! Great podcast – I always learn so much from listening, and I appreciate all of your seed starting information as well. I’ll be requesting a catalog from Adaptive Seeds – I love to try something new, and anything to help my bird friends!

  6. Irene says:

    I have tried amaranth, a highly appreciated plant in Mexico; I was very pleased with the ornamental value, so the edible leaves and seeds were sort of a big bonus. This year I am trying huauzontle. Wonderful post, thank you!

  7. Nell says:

    At Chanticleer Gardens this past season in the Tennis Court garden they grew some really striking big orange plumey plants that were either giant celosias or amaranths. I saw the cultivar name somewhere, but can’t remember it at the moment. If these are going to be a thing, surely somebody’s going to develop a variety called ‘Sideshow Bob’…

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