Wheat Growth Stages

Wheat (Triticum aestivum) is currently the biggest food crop in the world, accounting for an estimated 20% of the global food supply. From sourdough bread to sugary cereals, escaping this grain in day-to-day life is nearly impossible!

With so many gardeners now growing for self-sufficiency above all else, it also shouldn’t be a huge surprise that growing wheat at home is becoming more and more popular. 

In this article, I’ll introduce you to the most important wheat growth stages. You’ll also pick up some expert tips and tricks for growing wheat in the home garden.

Conditions for Growing Wheat

Wheat is an annual grass cultivated primarily for its nutritious seed heads. There are seven different species of wheat grown around the world. Common wheat, or T. aestivum, is by far the most common. 

Unlike the grass that probably fills your lawn, wheat grows 2 to 4 feet tall on average. (Wheatgrass — a name given to immature wheat plants — more closely resembles turfgrass.)

Common wheat is generally hardy down to −10°F. Some varieties have been bred to survive brief stints of −15°F. You might be wondering why this matters if wheat is an annual. I’ll touch on the concept of ‘winter wheat’ below.

Home gardeners can grow up to 25 wheat plants within just one square foot. This starkly contrasts the vast wheat fields most of us are familiar with! A single square foot of wheat can produce up to 12 pounds of usable grain at the end of the growing season.

Sun is very important for healthy, vigorous wheat growth. The grass needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. Avoid planting wheat in an area shaded by nearby buildings, trees, or other crops in your garden.

Like most plants, wheat grows best in loose, well-draining soils. Excess moisture in the soil can contribute to things like root rot in the wheat. You might be tempted to fertilize your wheat plot for good growth, but think twice. A high nitrogen content in the soil can interfere with growth.

Wheat Growth Rate

Wheat is a fast-growing crop that can average up to 12 inches of new growth per month. Most growth occurs during the stem elongation phase, or between 90 and 150 Growing Degree Days (GDD) after planting.

Wheat’s growth rate is highly dependent on temperature. Farmers use GDD, a type of heat unit, to track and estimate the development of their crops. I won’t go into too much detail here (a bit of math is involved), but GDD can also be a valuable tool for the home gardener.

Growth Stages of Wheat

Spring wheat takes about 120 days to mature. Winter wheat takes about 240 days. Wait… what’s the difference?

Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. The majority of wheat grown around the world is spring wheat.

Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested the following spring. While winter wheat is in the ground for twice as long as spring wheat, it spends most of that time in a dormant state. 

Many farmers plant winter wheat because it’s one of the only crops that will grow during the colder months. Winter wheat also has a different nutrient profile than its spring counterpart, containing more protein on average.

As we go through the growth stages of wheat below, I’ll mostly be referencing spring wheat. However, the order of growth stages is the same for winter wheat.

1. Seed Germination

Every stalk of wheat starts as a small seed. Note that the general size and color of seeds can vary from one type of wheat to another. Growing conditions affecting the parent plant can also influence seed appearance.

Most wheat seeds have very weak dormancy — good news for anyone wanting to grow their own. Once planted, wheat seeds should germinate within 5 to 10 days in ideal conditions. ‘Ideal conditions’ usually mean a soil temperature between 53 and 77°F and consistent moisture.

 Seed Germination

The success rate of wheat seed is generally around 90%. This is the rate I’d expect in most home gardens. However, large-scale operations that broadcast seeds widely onto the soil surface often experience success rates as low as 50%.

So that’s enough about what needs to happen before germination can start. What does the actual germination process look like?

First, the seed starts taking in water through its seed coat. This is called imbibing. The seed must reach a total moisture content of 35 to 45% by weight to continue.

Then, the seed’s primary roots emerge from the seed coat. These roots may be almost invisible at first but will grow very quickly from this point on.

Finally, the seed’s coleoptile emerges from the seed coat. The coleoptile is a protective sheath that covers the wheat seedling’s embryonic stem and leaf tissue as it grows toward the soil’s surface.

2. Seedling

You can witness all of the steps above by sprouting wheat seeds on something like a damp paper towel. In practice, however, most wheat seeds complete germination beneath the soil. You won’t see any progress until the coleoptile breaks through the soil’s surface and announces the start of the seedling phase.

Once the coleoptile grows through the soil, the wheat seedling’s first leaf will push out from the protective covering. 

wheat Seedling

The number of emerged leaves often tracks wheat plant growth. Several popular methods track wheat growth. One such method classifies a seedling as any plant with fewer than 3 to 5 emerged leaves.

Remember that the seedling’s root system is also hard at work. Though the seedling relies on energy stored inside the seed for several days after sprouting, the root system will eventually mature so it can fully take over. When that happens, the remaining seed shrivels up.

3. Tillering

The next significant step in wheat development is tillering. Tillers are side shoots that grow from the coleoptile node at the base of the wheat plant. Until this point, the wheat plant has had only a single main stem.

Tillering commonly begins 30 to 35 days after germination. New tillers can continue to form throughout the wheat’s life, but the earliest shoots are considered the most important.

wheat Tillering
Credit image: RoRo by CC 1.0

Like what I covered in the seedling stage, tillering is commonly classified by the number of tillers on a plant. The tillering stage typically lasts until the wheat plant has at least five tillers (in addition to the main stem).

Farmers spend much time and energy finding ways to increase tiller crop development. For the home garden, however, all you need to know is that tillering is a vital part of the wheat life cycle.

Why is tillering important? Well, wheat plants with many tillers can produce more seed heads later in the season. According to research from Kansas State University, tillers can account for up to 70% of total yield! 

4. Stem Elongation

Stem elongation typically starts with jointing. Jointing is when the main growth point of the wheat stem moves above the soil’s surface. 

As this growth point moves up, the tillers will also ‘shift’ up the main stem. 

Each wheat stem consists of nodes and internodes. Nodes are growth points and can easily be identified because they look and feel like small bumps in the branch. Internodes are the sections of stem between each node.

The lowermost internodes of a wheat plant usually stay relatively short. During stem elongation, however, the internodes toward the top of the plant begin to rapidly extend. 

The wheat’s flag leaf will emerge from the sheath about ten days before the stem elongation phase ends. The flag leaf is the last (topmost) leaf and is responsible for most energy production that goes into grain development.

5. Heading

This aptly named stage is when the wheat head emerges from the flag leaf sheath. The head is the part of the wheat plant that holds the flowers and eventual seeds.

6. Flowering

When the head first emerges, it is covered in small green florets. The florets in the center of the head flower first, followed by the florets both above and below. Flowering starts within a couple of days of heading.

Wheat flowers are self-pollinating. Pollination most often occurs before the flowers physically open, so cross-pollination of wheat is incredibly rare. It takes about four days for a wheat head to finish flowering.

You can closely examine the florets on a head of wheat to determine if pollination was successful. Look for the small anthers protruding from each floret. According to the University of Minnesota, pollinated florets have yellow or grey anthers. Unpollinated anthers are usually green.

Credit image: Jurema Oliveira by cc 1.0

7. Grain Filling

It takes about 30 days for wheat kernels to develop in average growing conditions. This process is also known as grain filling.

During the first week, the wheat kernels rapidly increase in size. This period is divided into ‘watery ripe’ and ‘milk’ stages. 

Then, during the ‘soft dough’ stage, the kernels’ dry weight rapidly increases. This occurs 7 to 14 days after pollination.

The last stage before harvest is called ‘hard dough’. At this point, the kernels lose their green coloring and turn brown.

When to Harvest Wheat

Wheat kernels are ready to harvest when they have a hard, crunchy texture. Soft kernels need more time to ripen on the stalk. You can pinch the kernels between your fingernails to determine if they’re ready.

While large-scale farmers use heavy equipment to harvest their wheat, the average plot of wheat in a home garden can usually be harvested by hand with relative ease.

Once harvested, it’s best to let the wheat sun-dry for 7 to 10 days before moving forward with your chosen storage method.

FAQ Wheat Growth Stages

How many years does wheat take to grow?

Wheat is an annual plant that completes its life cycle in less than one year. It takes an average of 120 to 240 days for wheat to mature, depending on if it was planted in the spring or fall.

Can I grow wheat in my yard or garden?

Wheat is a great cereal grain to grow in the home garden. You can fit dozens of wheat plants in a very small space, and it’s very easy to grow. However, you probably don’t want to replace your lawn with the crop!


 | Website

Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.