Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a dynamic late autumn, winter and early spring grain crop that is somewhat higher in calories that other short-day crops.
Added to soups, it tastes great, and thickens the broth beautifully. It can also be used as a fodder crop for animals, as an ingredient in the making of beer, or as natural algae-killer in ponds!
Barley normally takes 90-days to mature rather than the 4 to 8 months for other short-day grains. This is an advantage, as it can be planted on time and go to maturity earlier, or be planted later, to work with your garden’s schedule. In both instances, it means the extra growing time per unit of area made available can be used to grow other crops for nutrition and for compost materials.
According to Cereal Crops by Warren H. Leonard and John H. Martin (Macmillan, 1963 – out of print, but still available used online or at the library) barley has an additional advantage compared with other grains: its capacity to be harvested two weeks early (!!) without changing the nutritive value of the grain. In this way, the 90-day growing period can be reduced to 75 days. In fact, might be reduced even more, to approximately 60 days, if you stop watering it a month earlier than you would with the 90-day harvesting point. The benefit of this characteristic is the possibility of clearing a growing bed early in the spring, so another crop – such as a summer grain – can be planted in time to allow for full maturation of the seed and the biomass accumulation of the summer crop in short-main-growing-season regions. In our 5-month growing season at the Willits mini-farm in northern California, this time-saver can make a key difference in creating a successful multi-season garden plan for compost and nutrition!
Consider using a bearded barley with its grain head spikes that tend to keep the birds away from feasting. Or, use beardless “naked” barley varieties such as like Faust, Shrene or Ethiopian for an easier-to-thresh experience (particularly if you’re using it for forage – barley awns are sharp and can irritate an animal’s mouth). Hayes malting barley is an easy to grow beardless variety for home brewers. Whatever you choose, barley is a beautiful and bountiful addition to your garden.