How to Plant and Care For This Underappreciated Grain

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If you’re aiming to diversify your food plants, then chances are you’re looking at various grains as well as nutrient-dense vegetables. Consider growing millet, as this delicious, nutritious cereal grain does remarkably well in many different climates.

It’s gluten-free, rich in protein and fiber, and can thrive even in drought.

Read on to learn more about this wonderful crop, and how to grow it on your own land!

What is Millet?

Millet isn’t a single plant but rather an agricultural term for a few similar plants.

Millet is a member of the grass (Poaceae akaHeat transfer) family and is indigenous to parts of Africa and Asia. Its mature grains are high in carbohydrates, protein, iron, manganese, and various B vitamins.

As such, it’s an excellent crop for those who are looking for sustainable food sources.

Better yet, since it adapts well in mostly infertile soils that are prone to drought, you can cultivate it in areas where few (if any) other crops could be grown.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here’s an added bonus: it’s naturally gluten-free. This makes it ideal for those of us with celiac disease who can’t eat grains such as wheat, barley, or rye.

How to plant and care for this underappreciated grain

Which Millet Variety Should You Grow?

There are many different millet species and varieties to choose from. In North America, two of the main species grown for food production are “pearl millet” (Pennisetum glaucum) and “proso millet” (Panicum milleum). You’ll also see foxtail millet (Setaria italica).

The former—pearl millet—is better suited to the hotter, arid conditions found in areas like Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, as well as parts of North Africa, southern Asia, and most of Australia.

In contrast, proso millet prefers a bit more moisture and is ideal for most parts of the northern USA, Canada, and Europe. It’s been cultivated in the Slavic countries for millennia, and there’s evidence that it was first domesticated in northern China around 10,000 years ago.

Proso is the only millet grown in the US in large amounts for the grain. Otherwise, most millet is grown for hay or pasture feed.

But just because North Americans haven’t caught on to how marvelous millet can be, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be growing it on your homestead. In fact, millet is so nutritious and easy to raise that it–not rice–is the main grain in China.

Millet can thrive in agricultural zones 2 through 11. As such, unless you’re living in the high arctic or southern Sudan, you should be able to grow this crop at home.

How to Plant Millet

How to plant and care for this underappreciated grain

Millet prefers to be sown directly after the last frost date. You can either broadcast it so it’s surface-sown (ideal for large areas), or press it gently into the soil and cover it with about a quarter-inch of compost. Keep the area fairly moist and it’ll do its thing on its own.

Just ensure that the ground is warm enough and that there’s no chance of a random frost swooping in to kill your seedlings before you plant.

You can start millet seeds indoors a few weeks ahead of the last frost date, but sow them in large containers. Since it grows so quickly, it can easily become rootbound before you have a chance to transplant it outdoors.

Once it’s a few inches tall, give it regular excursions to a protected, sunny patio or similar to acclimatize and “harden” it to outdoor conditions.

Additionally, you’ve probably noticed that grasses grow very enthusiastically. Millet is no exception. You can expect it to grow from seed to flower within 50-60 days, depending on species, with seeds maturing shortly thereafter. As a result, you may wish to sow it twice over the growing season.

Here in Quebec, we plant one batch in early June for a mid-August seed harvest, and then sow another to harvest in late October.

Caring for Millet

Since millet will grow up to 5 or 6 feet tall, be sure to grow yours where it won’t shade out other crops. I use millet, amaranth, and sunflowers as border plants around the periphery of my property. This way they get a ton of sunshine, but don’t block the light from getting to my other crops.

Millet is ideal for infertile or semi-fertile soils. After all, it’s a member of the grass family and we know how eager those plants are to establish themselves. Grass pokes up through driveways and sidewalks, so there are few issues growing millet just about anywhere.

That said, millet will grow larger and will create bigger, more abundant seed heads in more fertile ground.

How to plant and care for this underappreciated grain

Ideally, it does best in pH-neutral soil that’s well-draining. But it will grow in acidic and alkaline soils too. Basically, you can grow millet just about anywhere that isn’t solid clay, or waterlogged.

Watering and Feeding

Since millet has adapted to thrive in even drought-like conditions, you don’t need to fret too much about watering it. Try to keep the surrounding soil moist, but don’t over-water it.

Your best bet is to put down a layer of shredded leaf mulch to help retain soil moisture. If your area gets regular rainfall, you may only have to water your plants during periods of heavy drought.

Although millet isn’t a heavy-feeding crop, you may wish to feed it during its growing phase with a high-quality standard grass fertilizer. Additionally, if you’re going to grow a second crop during the season, replenish the soil with some vital nutrients a few days before sowing.

Potential Issues with Growing Millet

One of the main issues that may come up when growing millet is a slimy stem or root rot from too much water. These plants don’t like to have wet feet at all.

Make absolutely sure that the soil is well-draining, with plenty of sand, perlite, volcanic rock, etc. before sowing. If you see evidence of slime or rot on the lower stalks, stop watering for a few days or more.

This crop can also be prone to leaf spot, ergot, and blight. These are all caused by damp conditions, so your best bet for keeping your plants healthy is to avoid overwatering. Oh, and only water at ground level: never from above.

Millet can have a number of insect predators that you should keep an eye out for. These include (but are not limited to):

The links above will take you to our dedicated articles on how to prevent and eliminate these pesky pests.

In addition to insect infestations, you may also have to contend with predation by local wildlife.

Millet heads can provide great nourishment for migratory songbirds and local species over the winter. That said, you can prevent various species from ganking your crop by covering your millet with ultra-fine mesh netting.

Harvesting and Storage

How to plant and care for this underappreciated grain

The best method for harvesting millet is similar to the technique used for amaranth, mullein, and other plants with abundant seed heads.

Millet seed heads will start to dry on their stalks between late September and mid-November, depending on your location and when you planted.

You’ll know they’re just about ready to harvest if you break open some pods and discover firm, round, yellow, brown, or black seeds (depending on species).

At this point, get yourself some large paper bags and cover the seed heads with them. Tie them tightly around the stalks with string, and then use clean garden shears to cut the stalks about 8-10 inches below the tie.

Hang these heads upside-down in a warm, dry room for about a week. At this point, the grains can be easily removed from the casings with a bit of friction.

One of the most fun ways to get the grains free is to have an impromptu dance party. Grab those paper bags and shake them around as you bop around to your favorite songs. The grains will fall into the bags, making them easier to collect. Then you can just rub the heads over a bowl with your hands to free any clingers.

Spread these grains onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper and let them dry out for a few more days. The last thing you want is to have a few semi-damp seeds in storage jars with your dry ones.

I lost an entire jar of dried beans once because that one moist one made the entire lot moldy.

Once all the seeds are dry, put them into clean glass jars with tight-fitting lids. Then store these in a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight until needed. Or, process the grains into flour (more on this below) and then store your flour the same way.

How to Use Millet for Food

How to plant and care for this underappreciated grain

One great thing about millet is that it’s not just useful for human consumption. You can grow it to feed chickens, Guinea fowl, and other poultry, as well as for herbivorous animal companions. I grow it both for my own table, as well as for my pet birds and rabbit.

If you’re growing millet to feed poultry, you can just toss whole millet heads into their enclosure or out into your yard. The birds will peck the seeds free and have a marvelous time doing so.

In fact, millet heads can be a great boredom buster during the winter months if your birds are (quite literally) cooped up for months.

In contrast, using millet for human meals requires some simple processing. Hand-cranked grain mills are a must-have for any homesteader, especially since they can be relied upon if the power grid goes down. These will transform any grain into flour, which of course you can then use for absolutely anything.

Processing and Cooking with Millet

When I don’t feel like processing flour by hand, I use a trusty coffee grinder to process the millet into flour in small batches. This is a far easier and quicker method, and also allows for easier combining.

For example, I’ll often process millet, amaranth, and quinoa at the same time for a multi-grain flour.

Note that millet is quite flavorless. This makes it ideal to adapt to sweet and savory recipes alike, as it’ll take on the flavor of whatever it’s added to. Just know that if you’re using it as a base flour for things like pancakes or other sweet baked goods, you’ll need to add spices or other flavorings to it. Otherwise, it’ll be like eating sawdust.

Millet is lovely cooked into a type of porridge with dried fruit and nuts, or made into something akin to polenta. You can then slice it thinly and fry it, and it’s absolutely delicious.

Growing millet is a surefire way to bulk up your pantry stores. It can keep you, your family, and many of your animals fed in lean times and is perfect for depleted soils. You just can’t go wrong with this plant.

A Note About Growing Millet as a Food Source for Wild Animals

Just as a side note, millet is ideal if you’re a conservationist with a soft spot for local wildlife.

Consider leaving some millet heads on their stalks for wild animals to eat over the winter. The seeds can help sustain local songbird populations during the cold months, and may even help to feed temporary visitors during migration season.

Fallen seeds can also keep wild squirrels and rabbits from starving, and deer may even venture close for a nibble as well.

Alternatively, if you hunt or trap fowl and such for food, millet can also benefit these endeavors. The seeds can fatten up partridge, quail, pheasants, and wild turkeys, making them more likely to have successful breeding cycles. This means more wild game on your table in the long run.

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