There's a reason why farmers -- not gardeners -- are the great producers of wheat, oats, barley, and other major grains: These are challenging crops to manage. But other interesting and beautiful grains are easy to grow in your own backyard, and they put dash and drama in among the daisies.
Growing ornamental grains is richly rewarding. Easy garden grains, such as millet and amaranth, are striking plants by themselves, and they are terrific in combination with annual and perennial flowers and shrubs.
Garden designers love grains for their brashness: They tend to stand up tall in a garden, making them a great choice for the back of a flower bed or the center of a bed you can see from all sides. Tall varieties of millet and amaranth -- sun-loving annuals that are easy to grow from seed -- will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with canna lilies or tall sunflowers. The dark foliage of Purple Majesty millet, which grows up to five feet tall in the garden, makes a striking backdrop for smaller summer flowers, and its dramatic flower spikes, which resemble cattails, are as handsome in flower arrangements as they are in the garden.
Purple Majesty comes straight off the farm: It was discovered in the course of a breeding program for forage grains at the University of Nebraska. The breeder's background and the majority of his work "is feeding the world, not providing ornamental flowers," says Mary O'Connor, a product manager for Pan American Seed who now works with the university's experts on ornamental millet. The instant popularity of Purple Majesty led to the introduction of shorter ornamental millets and to a greater range of colors, O'Connor says. Jester grows to only 3 feet tall; another small millet, Jade Princess, is only about 2 feet tall and has dense purple flower spikes that stand out against chartreuse foliage.
Ornamental grains of all kinds have especially caught on with flower farmers, who supply bouquets by the bucketful for farmers' markets and have a growing influence with florists and event planners. "Demand for ornamental grains -- and grasses -- is strong in the floral design world," says Debra Prinzing, author of "The 50-Mile Bouquet" and "Slow Flowers," which both feature the specialty blooms of flower farmers around the country. Ornamental grains are "not really a product that the huge South American exporters take the time to grow," Prinzing says, and consequently, U.S. flower farmers have turned several ornamental grains into top sellers. Prinzing calls ornamental grains "the couture category of specialty floral."
Diane Szukovathy, owner of Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon, Washington, grows about 150 different cut-flower varieties on her 7-acre farm, including half an acre planted with 10 different kinds of amaranth, another traditional farm crop that is worthy of a spot in the garden and easy to grow. "We are botanical freaks," Szukovathy says, explaining her interest in ornamental grains. She has also experimented with wheats -- especially a showy variety called Silver Tips -- and has grown orach, sorghum, quinoa and millet, as well.
Cut-flower trends are always changing, Szukovathy says, but the wildflower look is a perennial favorite with brides for bouquets and wedding decorations. Ornamental grains fit nicely into the niche, she says: They give bouquets and centerpieces an earthy sophistication.
Amaranth has been grown as an ornamental for generations. It is "an old-timey garden plant; it touches the heartstrings of a lot of people," says Mary Garcia, a spokesperson for Swallowtail Garden Seeds, a mail-order seed company that offers 10 different kinds of amaranth seeds. The old-fashioned amaranth called Love-Lies-Bleeding is one of the showiest, and it's easy to grow in the garden or in pots.
One of the most popular amaranth varieties is Hot Biscuits, a tall plant with tawny-gold seed heads in fall. The heavy seed clusters are dramatic in a garden and gorgeous in a bouquet. Last year, the lifestyle and garden shop Terrain in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, gave Hot Biscuits a prominent spot in a flower bed featuring orange, crimson and gold flowers, foliage, and seed heads.
If you're interested in cultivating a crop of wheat, barley or oats for bouquets, the best place to plant them might be in a row in the vegetable garden, where you can give them the special care they need. But go ahead and make room for millet and amaranth varieties in flower beds or in a big pot. They'll sparkle in the garden and turn bouquets into works of art.
Millet and amaranth are both easy to grow from seed or from transplants available at garden shops. Plant them in well-drained soil in a sunny spot. Tall varieties may need protection from wind. Find seeds here:
-- Swallowtail Garden Seeds, swallowtailgardenseeds.com
-- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com
In "Slow Flowers" (St. Lynn's Press, $17) Debra Prinzing, debraprinzing.com, shows how to use fresh flowers from local growers to make bouquets all year long. In her fall arrangements, she makes the most of the grace and beauty of ornamental grains. The website slowflowers.com will help you find fresh, locally grown flowers no matter where you live.
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