Maine used to be a major wheat-growing state. During the Civil War, it was the country’s bread basket, providing most of the wheat for the Union forces. And Maine was still a major commercial source for wheat as late as the 1940s.
Shai Levite and Toby Rosenberg shared that information last Sunday as fifth-graders at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland planted a crop of spring wheat.
This is the second year that students at the synagogue have planted wheat as part of their religious education classes. Levite said that last year, in a 50-by-6-foot plot, the class harvested enough wheat to make two loaves of challah, the braided bread eaten on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays — but they hope for a larger harvest this year.
“Last year, we planted traditional wheat, like the Jewish people took with them from Egypt,” said Levite, proprietor of Sabra Property Care in Portland. “This year, we are using an old Maine wheat, so we should get more.”
The Maine wheat is Glenn Hard Red spring wheat purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but the students also mixed in a little bit of Jerusalem wheat, an old variety that was originally was found at Masada, an ancient fortress in Israel.
Some of the wheat grown last year had hulls, so it had to be threshed before it could be ground and baked into bread. The Glenn has no hulls, and also has a great flavor for bread, Rosenberg said.
The planting program was started with the help of Elisheva Rogosa, who works with the group growseed.org to restore heritage wheats — the kinds that were used before commercial farming became predominant in the marketplace.
Rosenberg said growing wheat is a major part of Jewish culture, but that is only part of the reason she is integrating the growing of wheat into the religious education.
“We want to get them outside and to have them learn how food is grown,” she said, noting that the sixth-graders work on some raised vegetables for the congregation and that this year, produce will be donated to a local food pantry.
But for Levite, who was the inspiration for the project, another reason for the project is the wheat itself.
“It’s just a neat plant,” he said.
For starters, you can plant both winter and summer or spring wheat. The students planted the winter wheat in the bed last October, and some of those plants were more than a foot tall when the spring wheat was planted last week.
The winter wheat will be ready for harvest in July or August, and the spring wheat will be harvested in October.
The wheat also comes in a variety of colors. Some of it is a blue-green, some a dark green, and some a bright green. The seed heads come in different shapes and colors. The height of the wheat allows it to wave in the breeze.
“It looks just as good as ornamental grasses, but it also produces food,” Levite said.
Rosenberg noted that even if you do not have a wheat grinder, the grains of wheat are excellent when cooked whole and used in salads or served as a porridge.
Levite said wheat is a tough plant that he would like to see used more. In Israel, it grows in the desert, will grow on steep banks — helping to control erosion — and will stand some shade. He is hoping to plant more of it around Congregation Bet Ha’am’s property — for harvesting and just because it looks good.
Spring wheat can be sown anytime until June, Levite said, but the Johnny’s catalog says the yield will be better if you sow the seeds early in the season — just about as soon as the soil can be worked.
He told the students to plant the seed about one knuckle deep into the soil, telling them, “I want to see dirty fingers.” But after the youngsters returned inside to the classroom, he scattered the seed on top of the soil to cover it just a bit, saying the wheat seed is not fussy at all.
Congregation Bet Ha’am will be holding a plant sale from 9 a.m. to noon next Sunday (May 13) at the synagogue, 81 Westbrook St., South Portland, to help support the congregation’s farming programs. In addition to a variety of plants from its members’ gardens, the sale will have a number of orchids from an orchid grower who is moving and has to severely reduce his collection.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth, and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: