Melissa asks:

I am passionate about growing organic produce and I decided to grow oats for my family, animals and maybe extra for friends or bartering at farmers’ markets. I am new bloomer—never farmed before. With all the information about prepping the garden and controversy over tilling versus no-tilling, what do you recommend? What kind of oats do you recommend? Also, how do you spread the seed? Do you plant oats in long rows or cluster plots? I live in southeastern Indiana and I really appreciate any information you can offer. Spring is just around the corner and I need to make some decisions.

Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute Executive Director, says:

Welcome to farming. Glad to have you aboard. Oats are a crop that you can plant early in spring, preferably in March if the soil and weather allow. I would suggest that you till the soil as soon as possible. Typically oats are planted in fields using a grain drill to establish them in 7- or 8-inch rows. When this is done early in the season the oats can germinate and grow with very little interference from us as farmers. That means you’ll need to get all your fertilizer or soil amendments in place before you till the soil. A soil test will help you decide if additional crop nutrients are needed.

Oats are usually harvested with a combine in field situations but in smaller plots they can be harvested by hand in early to mid-July then taken to an area where you can thresh them out. If they are for human consumption you’ll need to hull them. This can be done by rubbing them between two rough surfaces that roll the hulls of the seed. Southern Exposure Seeds has instructions on making a dehuller attachment for a hand-crank grain mill. Or, you could always plant hulless oats. Good luck.

Additional notes from Rodale Institute staff:

Plant as soon as you can get the ground prepared. Oats are cold hardy down to about 10 degrees F for extended periods. If you can work the soil, you can plant—a frost won’t hurt them. In the mid-Atlantic region (zone6) the earliest we can plant is end of March to beginning of April. The crop gets harvested the end of July into August, so you should have enough growing time before snow.

The biggest issue may be getting the crop to die off and dry down for harvest. In northern climates, grain crops often need to be cut and windrowed to get them dry enough to thresh with a combine. If you are doing backyard-scale, you could cut and bundle into sheaves (approximately when the grain reaches “dough” stage), which could then be stacked under cover to dry.

Also if doing a small-scale planting, you may want to consider growing transplants under cover. They could be started a month before last frost, grown up to 6″ in plug trays, hardened off, and then set out in mid to late May. These spaced plants in good garden-bed soil can make many tillers (stalks with seed heads) and fill a square foot area. I have seen wheat plants in this type of situation make as many as 75 tillers versus plants drilled in a row 1″ to 3″ apart having only 1 to 3 tillers. It is our opinion that the extensive root system the wide-spaced plants have also picks up more nutrients and trace minerals, thus making highly nutrient-density grain, which is a better food and a better germinating seed with a longer life.

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