Wheat grows well hydroponically. Most plants do. But the main reason to grow anything hydroponically is that your crop will be larger and better controlled than if it were grown traditionally. To get a decent harvest of wheat you would need acres of hydroponic setup, and that's out of the realm of possibility for most people.
So why are we even discussing it? Well partly because it’s just an interesting experiment, and also because lots of universities, government agencies, and research organizations grow it that way.
For instance, NASA has been studying the hydroponic farming of wheat for decades because it’s part of their Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) Program. They’re working out how to farm food for long space flights and extraterrestrial projects, as in when we go to Mars. That is pretty fascinating.
Other institutions find it easier to grow wheat hydroponically so they can study it year-round. These research organizations and universities are also looking into vertically farming wheat as a way to expand global production. This is important because as the population increases worldwide, we will need to increase how much food we produce without using more land to farm it.
That being said, they do warn that hydroponic wheat will probably never be economically competitive with traditionally farmed wheat, but it’s still an important way to make more food.
However, there is one way you can grow wheat in quantities that are useful for your household or as a crop for sale: wheat grass. Wheatgrass is the newly sprouted leaves of your standard wheat plant. It has many beneficial properties and is a source of potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C and a host of other nutrients. You can grow a lot in a small space, and harvest very quickly. Now that sounds like a job for a hydroponics setup!
So let’s get into it.
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What is Wheat?
Firstly, wheat is an extremely ancient agricultural product. We’ve been farming it since farming was invented. But the wheat we all know today is not the same as the plant cultivated in the Levant 10 000 years ago. It has been bred to have much bigger ears, shorter stems, and to be much more disease resistant.
Around 7 species, divided into 20 varieties, are grown around the world. Most farmers won’t be aware of exactly what species they are planting, so unless you get your seeds from a place that specifies, neither will you.
The most common forms are red and white wheat, but you can also get black, yellow, and blue wheat.
Growing Conditions for Hydroponic Wheat
In soil, wheat will need 110 - 130 days between sowing and harvest. One experiment found that wheat grown indoors and hydroponically only needed 70 days from seed to harvest if kept at 73 F. Theoretically, this means you could get around 5 harvests a year from the space.
Too much nitrogen and your plants will grow too tall. This could lead to them falling over when the wheat ear grows too big for the stem to handle. However, most varieties grown these days have been genetically modified to prevent this, so it’s not so much of a problem.
However, for wheatgrass, which loves potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus, you can just invest in a good fertilizer from your hydroponics goods store. Liquid kelp is highly recommended.
Wheat can be grown under lights 24 hours a day, but that could become expensive and you can still maximize growth with 20 hours a day of light. It was estimated that the largest cost of growing wheat hydroponically was the electricity costs. But if and when large-scale hydroponic wheat farming goes ahead, solar power will bring down the costs enormously.
You should stick with the growing medium that is recommended for the hydroponic system you choose, but a good start is coco coir.
Best Hydroponic Systems For Wheat
In soil, wheat has roots that can extend six feet, so your best options would include systems with a lot of space for them to spread.
NASA started off by using the nutrient film technique (NFT) because it really maximizes the number of plants you can grow in a given space.
This system is also useful because feeding the plants is easy, as is making sure the water pH stays in the right range. If you need to disinfect the roots, you can access them without much trouble, and your water and electricity consumption costs are lower than with the other methods.
In general, the most economical solution would be to go vertical, which NFT lends itself to nicely, but you can also try an ebb-and-flow system.
This is the simplest method for growing anything hydroponically. And you won’t be pigeonholed into any specific growing medium, because most of them work brilliantly in this system. Ebb and flow setups are also great for plants with large root systems, such as wheat. And if you decided to scale up production, you can easily add on to your current system.
The drawback of growing wheat in an ebb and flow system is that scaling up can get pricey, quickly. Also, if you get a pathogen in your water, you’ll need to take apart the whole system for disinfecting, from flood trays to net pots, grow media, and reservoirs.
The last good option is to go aeroponic. The frame makes it simple to grow vertically and your wheat will grow quickly. The major drawback here is that it costs a lot to get this system going. Thereafter your costs are minimal compared to other hydroponic systems.
However, if you’ve decided to go the wheat grass route, then your options are pretty much endless, but simpler is definitely better.
Wheatgrass needs very little root space, is low on water, and needs barely any nutrients. Your best bet would be to maximize your plant/space ratio, and to succession plant so that you’re getting a regular harvest.
A wicking system might be your cheapest and best option here, but even germinating your wheat seeds in a bed of wet cotton wool will do the trick.
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Starting Your Wheat Hydroponic Crop
In order to start your wheat or wheatgrass crop, you need to soak your wheat berries for 8-12 hours. This helps get rid of any pesticides on the berries and hydrates them, which makes the seed coat soft. After soaking, drain out the water and rinse off the seeds well.
Next comes sprouting. You can either put your seeds into a grow tray and sprout them there, or you can sprout them directly in your hydroponic system. If they’re in the grow tray, simply wet the seeds well and cover them with cardboard for 24 hours. You can add some liquid fertilizer at this stage. Once they’ve spouted, cover them in coco coir to a depth of about an inch. Make sure to dampen the coco coir, but don’t drown it. It should take about four days before they break the surface of the coco coir.
If you’ve opted for growing wheat grass they can stay in this tray for the rest of their growing cycle. But if you want to grow full-sized wheat now would be a good time to transplant it into your net pots.
If you started the seed in the hydroponic system, combine your grow medium with some sphagnum peat moss or kelp fertilizer and wait for them to sprout to about an inch. You can now move them to a sunny spot or turn your lights on.
Maintaining Your Hydroponic Wheat
If you are growing wheat there are two main systems that are used to determine the stages of growth that it goes through. They are the Feekes scale and the Zadoks Scale. You can use these scales to determine what nutrients are necessary at certain growth stages.
The last leaf on the stem, known as the flag leaf, will determine the quality of the wheat ear. This leaf is highly photosynthetic and provides the carbohydrates the ear needs to grow big and fat. So if your last leaf is healthy, you know you’ll get a good ear out of the plant.
It’s important to keep temperatures stable and low in the period between when the flower has just fully opened (anthesis) and when it reaches maturity. Temperatures that are too high will not be good for pollen formation.
Wheat is a self-pollinating plant, which means it has both male and female parts on the same plant. Because wheat doesn’t make an attractive flower or give off a tasty smell, insects and birds won’t pollinate it. To get the pollen off the stamen and onto the sticky stigma, all you need is wind or you can shake the stems.
If you are growing wheat grass all you need to do is maintain your light and temperatures for about 10 days, or until the wheat is around 10 inches tall.
For full-sized wheat you’ll want to harvest when the stalks are just changing from green to brown. Cut them just above the growing medium.
Next, tie the stalks together with twine and leave them to dry out for about two weeks. You can leave them flat or hang them. You’ll know they are ready if the ears crunch when you bite down on them.
Now spread a sheet on the ground and put your stalks onto it. Beat the stalks with a wooden dowel or stick (known as threshing), then collect the seeds into a bowl. Set the bowl in front of a fan, and let it blow the chaff away. Now your wheat grains are ready for storing.
For wheatgrass, when you’re happy with the length, snip it off as close to the grow medium as possible. Use immediately.
What We’ve Learned About Growing Wheat In a Hydroponic System?
While it’s not financially rewarding to grow full-sized wheat in a hydroponic system, it can be an interesting project. There are a few different systems that lend themselves well to growing wheat successfully, and with improved technology, this could be a great way to grow large quantities to meet global demand.
But as a home grower, you’re better off growing wheat grass. It's easy, startup costs are low, and the reward is a crop that’s great for your health.