Amazing Grains

If you like ornamental grasses, you'll adore the brighter colors and cool textures of amaranth, millet, and wheat.

By Nancy J. Ondra


Mad About Millet
Organic Gardening first grew burgundy-leaved 'Purple Majesty' millet (Pennisetum glaucum) in our test garden when it was introduced a few seasons ago, and we still love it. Its 8-to-12-inch purple spikes captivate, both in the garden and in arrangements. 'Lime Light' spray millet (Setaria italica) threatened a coup against 'Purple Majesty' in our 2004 garden. Its long-lasting, arching, yellow-green seedheads on sturdy, upright stems made it a real attention-grabber. Both of these millets grow 3 to 5 feet tall, suiting them best for back-of-the-border planting.

Growing tips: Sow the seeds directly outdoors in late spring, scattering them evenly over the ground and barely covering them with soil. Or give 'Purple Majesty' a head start by sowing it indoors in mid to late spring, then setting out the plants 6 to 12 inches apart after the danger of frost is past. Just be sure to get the plants into the garden while they're still small. Allowing them to mature in cell packs reduces their performance.

Special Note: Prevent stunted plants by transplanting seedlings when they're still small.

Sweet Wheat
Avid crafters adore the spiky heads of wheat for wreaths, arrangements, and other decorations, particularly because they make such an appealing contrast to the rounded forms of many dried flowers. 'Silver Tip' (which is actually a variety of triticale, a wheat-rye cross) has long, silvery white whiskers, while the long green bristles of 'Black Tip' turn dark as they dry.

Wait until the plants are just starting to dry to get the typical golden brown wheat color, or try harvesting earlier, after the heads are formed but while the stems are still green. "They'll keep the green color as they dry," notes Ellen Spector Platt, author of Natural Crafts from America's Backyards (Rodale, 1997), "so you can use them in arrangements all year long—not just for fall." If you wait too long to harvest, the seeds will be loose, and they'll tend to fall out of the heads as you work with them.

Growing tips: Unlike many other grains, wheat isn't a good choice for ornamental beds. "We had trouble distinguishing it from the weedy grasses in our garden," Ruch says. To minimize the confusion, plant wheat in rows in its own bed. You can sow the seeds directly outdoors in early spring and rake them in.

Special Note: Plant wheat in rows so that you can distinguish it from weedy grasses. Sow in early spring.