Rising Oats: Entire Grain Goodness

Whether you grow them for flour or a simple porridge, oats are a staple for many. Avena sativa is the botanical name of this weed plant, and it's one most expect to grow in vast, commercially farmed fields. But oats can also be grown at home, and in fact it is an effective cover crop when sown in the autumn months. But if grown during the normal growing season, you will get nice oat seed heads at the right time!

The common oat is grown all over the world. Genetic evidence shows that oats were first grown in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East before spreading west to the more temperate regions of Europe and the Middle East.

Aside from being a healthy crop, they have multiple uses in the garden. Its stems make excellent thatch, young plants can be plowed under to produce green manure, and the dense planting helps protect the soil. Oats are incredibly disease resistant and fun to grow!

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Quick care instructions

Growing oats is an unusual but rewarding option for gardeners. Source: Alma Nac

Common name(s) Oats, common oats
Scientific name Avena sativa
days until harvest 100-120 days
Bright Full to partial sun
water 1 inch per week
floor Fertile, well-drained soil
fertilizer Optionally, nitrogen will help accelerate growth
pests Aphids, armyworms, wireworms, birds
Diseases Anthracnose, crown rust, powdery mildew, loose smut, barley yellow dwarf, scab

All about oats

oat fieldOats thrive in dense plantings, as illustrated by this field of oats. Source: tuchodi

Oats are categorized as a grain, meaning they are a type of grass grown specifically for their seed. Like other grains, the plant has a tall stalk with thin, pointed leaves that alternate along the length of the stalk. During the growing season, after the oats have sprouted and started to grow, they undergo a process called tillering. Tillering is when shoots of the lower leaves begin to grow from the main stem of a grass plant underground, known as "tillering". Tillering is mainly dependent on environmental conditions, but high fertility and sufficient soil moisture encourage more tillering. Once the plant reaches a height of 2–3 feet, it will produce buds. After pollination, the flowers develop seed heads, which we then process and use. Depending on the climate, oats can be grown and harvested multiple times a year, using unique cultivars developed for specific climates and seasons.

Oats are known to most people through their common usage as oatmeal or rolled oats. The oatmeal we eat comes from the oat seeds, which are processed to remove the tough outer oat hull. Besides its popular use as a warm bowl of oatmeal, oatmeal is also used to make fine oatmeal, oatmeal for brewing, cold cereal, oat bread, raw oats (yes, you can eat them raw!), oat milk, etc. and many other uses. Oats are also a very popular microgreen due to their fast germination and high nutrient content. Some people even grow oats alongside barley and wheat as part of "cat grass" blends.

Aside from its culinary uses, oats are one of the most widely used animal feeds. Turns out, farm animals enjoy a wonderful oat meal just as much as we do! Oatstraw is also a great source for pet bedding or garden mulch. Even if you haven't grown oats for eating in your home garden, many gardeners are familiar with them as a type of cover crop. A cover crop is a crop that you plant to protect soil not otherwise used by planting. Commonly planted with a mix of other seeds such as winter peas, vetch and rye, oats protect soil life, break up clods of soil with its roots, grow out of weed seeds and can be incorporated into the soil as a cover crop.

It is common to plant a hardy cultivar as a late summer crop or fall planting to act as a winter ground cover. The oat plants will grow quickly and become established in warm weather before dying to become a winter-killed groundcover. The dead plants then act as mulch, protecting the soil from driving rain, erosion and suppressing weed growth. If you live in an area with mild winters, some oat varieties will tolerate light frosts and come back quickly in the spring.

There are several varieties of oats, but popular varieties for home improvement include common oats, shelled oats, and feed oats.

plant oats

Oats are easy to grow and fun! If you are growing in soil, lightly sprinkle the oat seeds over the soil, aiming for about 2 seeds per square inch. Accuracy isn't that important with a weed plant, and oats are more forgiving. Once the oat seeds are down, lightly rake the sown soil to push the seeds into the top 2 inches of soil. This aids germination but also discourages wild birds from seeing your plant seeds as a tasty snack. Oat seeds germinate best at a soil temperature of 40°F, but will germinate faster as the soil temperature increases. Keep the soil continuously moist while the oat seeds germinate. Oat seedlings require moist soil, so make sure you keep up with watering once they've germinated.

Most people picture the large fields of commercially grown oats, but you can easily grow oats in a typical garden plot or even something as small as a raised bed! When growing oats on a small scale, dense planting of up to 25 plants per square foot is doable in one's backyard, especially when contained in a raised bed environment.

Oats are a hardy crop and although oats will grow in many conditions, it prefers full to partial sun and well-drained soil. Avoid planting oats in locations that are overly humid or shady.

When the seeds are planted depends on what the goal of the grow is. If you're growing oats for food, sow them in the fall (they overwinter) for a summer harvest, or plant them in the spring for an early fall harvest. If planting as groundcover, plant a midsummer plant that will grow strong enough in warm weather to withstand winter weather.


Oat seed headsAs the seed heads mature, they spread their spikelets. Source: tuchodi

Caring for wild oats is minimal, especially if you're growing them as a cover crop. Keep in mind that people have long farmed oats in many different places and climates. If you follow a few simple guidelines, you'll be harvesting home-grown oats in no time!

sun and temperature

Oats prefer full sun but will tolerate partial sun with at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Oats can be grown in most zones but will winterkill in zone 7 or colder. As with wheat, there are many varieties of oats that have been adapted to specific climate zones. So be careful what kind you buy.

Oats thrive in cooler weather, particularly during seed germination, but can tolerate warm weather, especially when the plants are more established. If temperatures rise, make sure you provide some extra water. Most oat varieties will tolerate light freezes, but are usually killed by temperatures below 5°F.

water and moisture

Young oats love water and will be happiest with regular watering. As they grow, wait until the soil begins to dry before watering them. Try to water in the morning to protect the plants from the heat of the midday sun. Oats require about an inch of water per week in most climates, and it's best to water the base of the plant with something like a drip hose or drip irrigation. Since oats are planted in a large group, focus on soaking the entire soil area and not just specific plants. Spring or fall generally requires less watering, especially if you live in a rainy area.


Oats thrive in average to moderately rich soil as long as it has good drainage. As a grass, they prefer not to sit in moist soil for too long. Oats are very robust and also grow on poor soils. They prefer acidic soils with a pH between 4.5–6.


Fertilization is often not necessary for oats. Because they tolerate a variety of soils, wild oats don't need much extra help. Top dressing with compost is a great way to provide extra nutrients. If you decide to fertilize at all, choose a fertilizer like blood meal or feather meal that contains a high amount of nitrogen (the N in NPK), which promotes rapid plant growth. Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) do not have a major impact on oat growth. If you are growing the crop as winter cover, good news is that fertilization is not required as it becomes fertilizer for next season's plants!


Except for the last harvest, no pruning is required for oats. Once the seed heads are cut off for harvest, the plant can continue to grow, but will not usually produce a second crop of seeds. After the seeds are harvested, the plants can be cut down and buried or plowed into the ground, added to the compost heap, or hung to dry to make loose straw.


Unlike some plants that can be propagated by cuttings, oats are only propagated by seed. Read the planting section above to learn how to plant oat seeds.

Harvesting and Storage

oatmealFlattened oats are how most people are used to buying oats. Source: michael.newman

After watching your oats grow steadily throughout the early spring and summer, you're approaching the best part, harvesting your oats! Harvesting oats can seem a little complicated at first, but it's a relatively simple technique.


The most important part of harvesting is knowing when to harvest. Farmers harvest oats when they have reached about 35% moisture content, but an easy way for gardeners to determine when is right is to fingernail test. Press your fingernail into a core and it should indent easily. The greenest seeds should fade to a cream color. The aim is to harvest the plants after 24 to 48 hours of rain-free weather.

The easiest way to harvest at home is to use a sickle, scythe, or secateurs. Start harvesting by cutting off the stem of the oat plant but leaving the seed heads intact. After that, you should let the plants dry. Depending on the weather and the available space, there are different techniques for this. Many gardeners gather the stems into bunches and place them upright in a warm, sunny spot. Another technique is to spread the stems out in a weather-protected area like a garage or covered patio. You just want to keep the stems dry and allow the seed heads to harden. Depending on your local conditions, this can take days to weeks.

Once the seed heads are dry, it's time to thresh and sift the oats. Threshing separates the seeds from the rest of the stalk. An easy way to do this is to set up a large tarp, grab a bunch of stalks and bang them against the tarp. If your arms get tired, you can use something else, like a plastic baseball bat, to hit the stalks, which will loosen the oats. When the oats are separated from the stalk, it's time to sift.

When winching, the oats are separated from the rest of the chaff. Place oatmeal and chaff in a large bowl or bucket. Choose a relatively windy spot or place a fan on one side. Pour the contents of the bowl in front of the fan and end up in a separate container underneath. The wind blows away the lighter chaff, leaving only the oats. The discarded stalks can be used as straw mulch or added to the compost.


Once dry oats have been separated from the plant, they can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months. Cooked oats can be stored in the refrigerator for 4-6 days.


Oats just before harvestJust before harvest, oats turn yellow and begin to dry. Source: Andrew Gustar

Although hardy and easy to grow, oats can be affected by some pests and diseases. As with most plants, prevention and proper growing conditions are your best defense.

growing problems

Because oats are so adaptable, there aren't many growing problems aside from pests and diseases. The most common problem affecting home gardeners is watering. Not enough water will stunt the growth of the plant (eventually leading to death) and too much water will lead to rot. The easiest way to make sure you're watering the right amount is to check the soil. Allow the soil to dry about an inch deep before watering more.


pests like aphids and army worms attack the leaves of the plant. Hitting the plants with jets of water will repel the pests and spraying neem oil will help control population levels. stink bugs and wireworms tend to attack young plants. Crop rotation and removing weeds and garden debris will help keep stink bugs and wireworms down.


Most oat diseases are fungi and are usually caused by overly wet conditions. anthracnose, crown rust, powdery mildew, loose dirt, and scab can be prevented by planting in a warm, dry spot and practicing crop rotation. Barley Yellow Dwarf is a virus carried by aphids, so controlling the aphid population is your best defense.

frequently asked Questions

oat spikeletsOat spikelets are quite pretty on the plant. Source: p4nc0np4n

Q: How long does it take for oats to grow?

A: About 6 months from seed to harvest.

Q: Are oats easy to grow?

A: Yes! Oats are adapted to most climates and grow easily.

Q: What climate is needed to grow oats?

A: Oats do best in temperate climates, but strains have been adapted to many areas.

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