How to Grow Rice in St. Louis
by: Dean Gunderson
Do you want to grow something totally different in your garden next year? Something that will surprise everyone who sees it? How about rice?
This year, we grew rice at our Demonstration Garden and Lucy, our School Programs Manager, grew rice at the Gateway Elementary school garden. Would you believe that the rice did great at both places?
When most people think of growing rice, they imagine a large flooded field somewhere in the humid tropical lowlands of Asia or whole mountainsides terraced so they can hold water to grow rice. Although rice is originally from East Asia it is grown all over the world and not just in the tropics either. In fact, Missouri is a major rice producer and it’s grow in places as far north as Russia, Poland, and northern Vermont.
Although people assume all rice needs to be grown in flooded conditions rice is actually a remarkably adaptable crop. In addition to being able to grow in flooded conditions it can grow where the field is alternately flooded and dry and there are even types of rice, called upland rice, that grow just off of rainfall in fields just like corn and wheat.
Because of its adaptability, you can grow rice in your own backyard here in Missouri. You won’t get much rice unless you’re growing in a large area, but that shouldn’t stop you because there are many reasons why you should grow rice.
Rice is particularly a great plant to grow with children; it’s really easy to grow, has virtually no weed problems because of the flooding, and matches well with the school calendar. It’s also just fun to grow grain.
Read on to find out how we grew flooded rice and how you can too!
HOW TO GROW RICE
The first and most important step is getting the right variety. We started with a “japonica” rice variety, which is more adaptable to our northern climates because it is triggered to produce seed by day length, not by the length of the warm season. This ensures you will get a crop, whereas if you grow traditional varieties there is a chance that you won’t get any grain at all. The variety we grew is called Koshihikari, which we purchased from Kitizawa Seed. We now also sell the seed ourselves and you can get it at our Carriage House on Saturday’s or at our office Monday-Friday.
Next, decide what type of “paddy” you will grow your rice in. Koshihikari is a flooded rice, so you will need something that will retain water. Whatever you plant it in will need to be at least a foot deep and watertight. You can grow in containers like 5 gallon buckets, plastic tubs, old bathtubs, whatever you have that’s deep and watertight. If you want to make a large area, a specially-made raised bed is your best bet, which is what we decided to do.
We built a double high raised bed that was 2’ tall. You can use our construction plans for a double high raised bed which has worked great for us. If you decide to use a different design, make sure the different layers of boards stay together.
Once we built the bed, we lined the entire inside of the raised bed with three layers of plastic. We just used a plastic drop cloth, which you can find in the painting section of any hardware store.
After lining the bed with plastic, fill the bed with a good garden soil mix. For our raised beds, we used a mix made up of 50% topsoil and 50% compost.
Now that you have your paddy, you’re ready for the easy part: growing the rice!
The best way to do this is to emulate the traditional way the people of Asia have grown paddy rice for thousands of years. Rice is traditionally grown in one paddy and then transplanted to their final spot later. Since our season is a bit short it’s best to have your “nursery paddy” inside. Start the rice indoors in pots around mid April just like you would any other seedling. Plant at least a few seeds per pot and keep them well watered. Make sure they have a strong light source and be sure to thin each pot to just one seedling once they have germinated.
In mid-May, flood your rice paddy so that there is standing water about 2” above the soil surface. The next day, reflood if needed (water may have gone down as it fully saturates the soil) and plant your rice into the flooded paddy about 6” apart in rows that are 12” apart.
How do you plant into a flooded field you ask? It’s really easy. The soil is so saturated you just take the roots of the seedling in your hand and push it into the soil, that’s it.
It was at this point that we started adding mosquito dunks to our rice paddy so that the standing water didn’t turn into a mosquito breeding ground. Mosquito dunks are an organic way to kill mosquito larvae and can be purchased as granuales or donut-shaped blocks online. One donut-shaped block lasts 30 days. They are made up of a specific strain of BT, a bacteria that is toxic to mosquito larvae (but not to people or beneficial insects).
From mid-May until about mid-September, the only maintenance needed is to make sure the paddy stays flooded. If there are any weeds, pull them out – we had one weed all year.
By early August, you will start to see the seed heads popping up from the stalks.
In September, your seed heads will start to droop. When they start to droop like this, stop watering your rice. Let the soil dry out and no longer keep it flooded.
Over the next few weeks, the water level will drop and the seed will turn a golden color. When the drooped seed heads turn a golden brown and the leaves are still green it is time to harvest.
To harvest, cut all of the stems at ground level. Lay the plants out on a table or somewhere that has good air circulation, but is protected from birds. If they are not protected from birds, they will eat all of your rice!
Let it lie out to dry for at least a few weeks, moving the plants around every few days so that it dries completely and doesn’t mold. When the stems have turned to a straw color, they are ready to process!
To learn how to process the rice into edible grains check out our blog post on that subject here