Sorghum in the Garden

Growers and cooks find this ancient grain isn’t just for farmers.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: About one third of the U.S. sorghum crop typically goes toward biofuel production each year (a bushel of grain sorghum produces as much ethanol as a bushel of corn), and sorghum is being used in pet foods, as well as snack bars, breakfast cereals and other human foods. Thanks to its tensile strength, stover, the straw left from harvesting sorghum, can be compacted and turned into paneling, insulation, wallboard and other products. There is much more info online from the U.S. Grains Council at http://www.grains.org.

Gardeners, as well as farmers, are finding new uses for sorghum, an ancient Egyptian grain that’s among the top five cereal crops in the world. Grain sorghum, or milo, has traditionally been used as livestock feed or planted for wild game like turkeys, deer and quail.

Sorghum needs ground that gets full sun and has fertile, well-drained soil.

Sorghum needs ground that gets full sun and has fertile, well-drained soil.

Now, gardeners are raising food-grade sorghums to mill into fresh, gluten-free flour for baking breads, pastas and other edibles, or brewing the grains for beer and other spirits. Growers are also raising cane, so to speak: Sweet sorghum, sometimes called cane sorghum, yields a mild syrup similar in consistency to molasses. Others are growing broom types to make dried floral arrangements or to cut into brooms.

Heat- and drought-tolerant, sorghum thrives in much of the U.S. Certain varieties can also grow in some southern parts of Canada, although the short growing season and cold temperatures can be challenging.

“Forage sorghum for hay or silage has the best chance of success,” along with some biomass types, says Brent Bean, Sorghum Checkoff agronomist, about growing in Canada. “Short-maturing grain sorghum hybrids will also work.” Bean suggests asking a seed company to recommend the best varieties for your growing region.

Planting and Harvesting Tips

Like corn, sorghum needs ground that gets full sun and has fertile, well-drained soil. Because sorghum is self-fertile, a large plot is not needed for pollination purposes. Mix a balanced fertilizer into the bed or row before planting.

Sorghum needs soil temperature to reach at least 60°F. In the garden, plant sorghum by hand, 1½ inches deep, in clumps of four seeds per hole. Space the holes 18 to 24 inches apart. Four seeds should yield about three uniform stalks and heads, enough to make a few dried arrangements if you’re growing them for ornamental use.

For grain production, plant one seed every 4 inches on 30-inch spaced rows. “An average head of sorghum will yield about one-tenth of a pound of grain,” Bean says.

Harvesting all three varieties is fairly simple. For sweet sorghum, cut the canes at ground level about two weeks after the milk stage. Next, strip off the leaves and ground or press the canes, which will yield a light green juice that can then be cooked into sorghum syrup. At this stage, the seeds aren’t yet fully mature, but they can be used as animal feed, or cooked and eaten like other whole grains.

Grain and broom sorghum are harvested after the seeds fully mature. The hard, glossy seeds of grain sorghum are harvested by cutting them off with a small portion of the stalk attached. Dry them in a warm, well-ventilated place for at least a week, then roll the dried seed heads on a hardware cloth screen or soil sieve to free the seeds and separate them from plant debris. Your processed harvest can then be stored in the freezer.

As for broom varieties, cut the stalks as long as you need them for floral arrangements or crafts. Allow the stalks to dry in small bunches.