When I tell people I grow rice I am always met with looks of mystification. The reality is most people have never seen a rice plant growing, despite the reality that we have all eaten it! And in the past two months, rice has disappeared from grocery store shelves, leading to a sudden interest in cultivating this little-known crop.
DOES RICE HAVE TO GROW IN WATER?
Rice is commonly grown in paddies for one simple purpose — weed suppression. Unaffected by flooding, the rice plant thrives while its competitors drown. The water serves as a natural form of herbicide. However, growing in water is not required, which is what makes rice such an interesting grain for home gardeners. It will thrive in the same conditions as many of our favorite summer annuals, including begonias, coleus and sweet potato vine.
WHAT IS RICE?
Rice is a warm season cereal grain in the Poaceae family that thrives in tropical areas, where it is hot and humid year-round. Even if you do not live in the tropics, you can grow rice as a warm season annual. It prefers temps well above freezing — ideally 50-100 degrees fahrenheit — so be sure to plant after your last frost date.
You can grow rice in any sunny area, even in the ground, with supplemental irrigation. I grow rice in many different locations, from my foundation landscape near downspouts to containers. Every way I grow it, rice is beautiful and is an instant conversation starter. Visitors never seem to be able to identify the random grass that I am cultivating around my garden and when they learn what it is, they are totally mystified and eager to learn more!
HOW CAN I GROW RICE?
Containers were my first approach to cultivating rice, and it is what I recommend to first-time growers. You can grow rice in traditional containers with drainage holes or solid vessels, with no holes, because rice will thrive in wetness. Planting is easy: just scatter a packet of rice seed onto the soil, cover lightly and allow it to germinate in place. In my experience, the seedlings will sprout within a week of sowing.
The plants will develop leaves through the summer for 50-85 days after sowing, depending on the variety you grow. At that stage, the reproductive panicle, or flower stalk, will begin to emerge. This will look like a bulging of the leaf stem, known as a ‘booting’ stage. It will continue to elongate, eventually revealing the bloom, which is referred to as ‘heading’. Flowering technically begins one day after the heading has completed and can continue for about a week.
Like all grains, rice is wind pollinated. As the flowers open, they shed their pollen abundantly, ensuring the entire panicle will produce viable seed. It takes about 30 days for the seed to fully mature, with weather playing a major role. In years with hurricanes and cloudy, wet conditions, it can take significantly longer for the rice seed to mature. Again, I do things as simply as possible — I just watch the plant and feel the seed heads and it becomes obvious when the seed is ready to be harvested.
HOW DO YOU KEEP RICE HEALTHY?
Fertility is an essential aspect of plant health and rice is no exception. Since I am an organic gardener, I feed my rice containers with fish emulsion once a month. This is an inexpensive, organic approach that will lead you to a successful harvest.
I have not experienced any pest or disease problems, which is not a shock when you are growing small quantities of a plant. There are more than 100 species of insects that are considered problematic for commercial rice growers, and bacteria, fungi and viruses can also cause trouble. It is always a best practice to select a resistant variety to avoid the potential for crop loss.
Rice is susceptible to root knot nematodes, which I have throughout my garden. This microscopic organism will invade the root system, causing root knot galls that drain the plant of nutrients, resulting in lack of vigor and crop loss. So far, the nematodes haven’t discovered my in ground rice plants — probably because they are too busy infecting my heirloom tomatoes, okra and everything else! But this is why I cultivate rice in containers in addition to growing in landscape.
WHAT VARIETY SHOULD I GROW?
Selecting a variety from 40,000 different options could seem daunting, but the reality is, as a home grower you only have about 10 from which to choose. Online retail seed sources comb through the cultivars and offer the seed that is best suited for small batch growing.
There have been a few standouts in my experience, ‘Carolina Gold’ being at the top of my list. This is a long grain variety and was the basis for the colonial antebellum economy of the coastal Carolinas and Georgia. It originated as an African and Asian hybrid strain, and is unique because of its uncommon starch character and versatility of flavor.
Another favorite of mine is ‘Black Madras’ which is sold as an ornamental strain, though it sets edible seed. Compared to traditional agricultural rice selections, this black-purple leaf variety has a modest harvest and a much slower growing habit. But the foliage color makes up for it, which is why I recommend planting it first and foremost for its ornamental attributes.
PRACTICING WHAT I PREACH
Overall, rice has become my favorite warm season grass to cultivate and I cannot imagine my garden, or my life, without it. I do not grow rice with the expectation of never buying it from the grocery store. Rather, growing it has made me appreciate the accessibility that we have through commercial distribution. Once you have cultivated, cared for, harvested and processed rice, you will never take for granted this basic food source. For me, that is the whole point of growing food.
Have you grown rice successfully? Are you a beginner looking for tips to get started? We'd love to continue the conversation.