The Harlan Society Growing Guide

Written by Christopher on 04/07/17

We shipped seed to members of the Harlan Society this week. This article is the last piece of information needed before seeds will be planted and the project really gets underway.

Varieties sent through Harlan Society

We grew out 22 heritage barley varieties from the USDA seed bank last year. 3 performed poorly, and we won’t be growing them again in our climate. The performance of the other 19 ranged from mediocre to great. We added our data on these varieties to our website this week. They are listed under the ‘Barley 2016’ tabs on both spreadsheets.

  • Germination rates ranged from 50% to 90%, with an average of 75%.
  • ½ of the varieties were standing upright at harvest, ⅓ were leaning, and ⅙ had lodged (fallen over).
  • 3 varieties had poor yields, 10 had fair yields, and 9 had good yields.

This year, we’re growing 20 new barley varieties in addition to everything we started last year. Members of The Harlan Society are growing out 32 new barley varieties, plus a smaller number of oats, wheat, and rye. We’ll likely experience a similar diversity of results as last year. Some varieties will grow terrifically, and others will yield less than was planted. This is due to a few reasons:

  • Normal growing limitations – storms, too much/little rain, disease or pest pressure, etc.
  • Seed – All of our seed comes from a USDA location in Idaho, where they do a great job of maintaining this wealth of genetic diversity. However, we have no idea how old the seed is, or how well the plant grew in Idaho. Thus, germination rates are a wildcard.
  • Location – The varieties are from all over the world, and we don’t know how well they’ll do in your backyard. How well does a Belgian variety do in Indiana? A Chinese variety in Boston? We’ve tried to match locations’ climates roughly, but there is still a lot to learn and discover.

As Harry would say, a plant performing poorly where you’re growing it doesn’t mean it’s a useless plant. You just aren’t growing it in the correct environment, or were unlucky with growing conditions. Many landrace varieties were selected and grown for generations, and had to have value for their growers. We’re seeking this value, and hoping to bring back a diversity of choices and flavors for farmers, maltsters, brewers, and beer drinkers.

General Growing Information

We wrote a guide to growing barley, available here. In addition, we’ve found this article from the U of MN useful in understanding the growth stages of barley. The rest of what you need to know should be listed below. This article focuses on barley, as that’s what we know best. Wheat, oats, and rye are quite similar to grow, and you should follow the same planting guidelines.

Planting Timing

The majority of Harlan members will be growing in northern climates. We’re generally clumped in New England, the Northern Heartland, and Colorado, which means we’ll plant and harvest around the same time. 2 are in warmer climates, which could be quite different – Tennessee and California. Everyone will need to use their judgement in planting, and some will need to do some research for their location.

Spring barley is a cool weather crop, usually planted in early spring. It grows quickly in the cool, wet weather of spring, pollinates before the weather is too hot, and dries down in the warmth of summer. For most of us, we’ll be planting very soon and harvesting in July or August. Getting the seed into the ground soon after it has thawed is important, because it allows the plants to create biomass before weeds become established. A nice stand of barley will shade out weeds until it begins to dry down and allow sunlight through. The earlier you plant, the better bet of less weeding and a larger yield. However, plant too soon and you could be hit with snow or frost.

The difference for members in warmer climates is that the weather could get too hot and negatively impact pollen formation, reducing yields. Spring barley is planted in the late fall or early winter in some warmer climates, but this depends on your specific location. If you are in a warmer climate (which this year is Tennessee and California), please do a little research for your specific location into normal planting schedules. Some locations in your states plant in the fall, some in the winter, and some in the spring. If additional research doesn’t yield anything useful, go ahead and plant right away! Your varieties could very well thrive, and we’ll end up learning something useful regardless. The following graph from the USDA is a reference point for planting dates.

Regional planting dates

  • In Minnesota, we’ll aim to plant soon after April 15th. Wisconsin should be similar.
  • In slightly warmer climates, like Nebraska or Indiana, the planting window starts in March and continues for a month, so plant as soon as you can.
  • In New England, plant around April 15th, or whenever your ground thaws. The only New England state listed above, Maine, has later dates, but these are referencing the barley growing regions at the northern tip of Maine. Rhode Island should be ready for immediate planting, and Boston and Vermont soon after.
  • In Colorado, the above dates primarily represent the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, where most Colorado barley is grown. For mountainous members, planting as soon as the ground is thawed within the above window is the best bet.
  • In BC, planting begins in mid March, so plant as soon as you can.
  • I can’t find planting information for northern Alberta, but would guess it would be in later April or May.


Plant your seed in a location with full sun and good soil. Barley soil can be optimized, but for this project it makes the most sense to use what you have. If you know your soil’s nutrients are depleted, you could add a little compost. However, barley is easy to over fertilize, which results in lanky plants likely to fall over. Wheat is a heavy feeder, so do add compost if you’re growing it.

Plant 28 seeds per square foot, which works out to 2 rows 6 inches apart with 14 seeds per linear foot. Plant each seed 1 – 2 inches below the surface.

Planting spacing

The average plot is 4.4 square feet. Within this 2.2’ x 2’ area, plant 4 rows, each 6” apart. Barley rows are represented by dashed lines in the above drawing. Plant seeds a little less than an inch apart. We recommend a 1’ path between the plots of each variety. Starting from an outside row in the above drawing, that’s 3” to the edge of the plot + 6” of row + 3” to the next plot’s first row = 1’ of row space.


Barley takes care of itself for the most part, and is easy to grow. There is little to do between planting and harvest. When the plant is young, you can weed it a few times before it becomes established. It will look like any other grass when it first comes up, so be careful not to mistake it for a weed and pull it! Rainfall will be sufficient in many areas, but additional watering can be helpful. In drier climates, lightly water your varieties when you water the rest of your garden.

Data Collection

We’ll be collecting data throughout the growing season. This will be spread out throughout the season, and shouldn’t require too much work. We’ll send out a reminder and google form to collect the data when it’s time. Since we’ll all be on slightly different growing schedules based on the different varieties and our locations, it will be up to you to check on your barley and respond when the data point is available. Ideally, you’ll be looking in on the plants every few days when they’re young, and around once a week when they’re established.

Spring Barley growth chart

Data collection will be a mixture of measurements, noting dates, and taking pictures. Here is an overview of the data points throughout the season:

  • Germination rate
  • Tracking the days to different plant stages:
    • Emergence
    • Boot
    • Heading
    • Soft Dough
    • Hard Dough
    • Dry Down
    • Harvest
  • Peak height
  • Heads per plant
  • Lodging
  • Disease/Insect pressure
  • Yield
  • Growth Rate

That looks like a lot, but don’t worry, it’s very manageable. To start, you’ll need to record the planting date and, once the plants are up, the number of plants so we can calculate the germination rate.


We’ve sent everyone 5 grams of Conlon, a modern 2-row malting barley variety. Given the various uncertainties we’re dealing with, we thought it best to have a constant throughout all locations to compare to. If you have the room, please plant this with the other varieties. If you don’t have the room, it’s ok to leave it out.

Future Flavors

Starting with 5 grams of seed is intimidating. It takes a few years to increase the seed to useful quantities, and the risks of plant failure or poor brewing qualities are real. It’s also really amazing. Watching the seed stock grow dramatically each year is thrilling, and dreaming about the possibilities has kept us busy in the early years. Now that the project is rolling, we’ll get our first tastes soon. We’ve received 10 lbs of 4 heritage varieties from a farmer, and will be malting them soon. Several of our year 1 varieties will be ready for malting this coming fall and winter. We’ll keep filling the pipeline with new seed each season, and soon will have a steady flow of varieties to test, malt, brew, and enjoy!