Thursday, June 29, 2017

Rice - A Lament

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will have probably noticed that I have a thing for rice. It is not only my favorite grain to eat but also my favorite grass to grow. To me, nothing quite compares to the brilliant green of rice foliage. I can obsess over the subtle differences between varieties - in habit, in the shape and size of the grain, in culinary characteristics. Not surprisingly, then, growing rice has always been an aspiration for me. As a child in Germany this was a challenge since unhulled rice capable of germinating, let alone any specifically sold as seed, was not available. When I finally got some seed it was by pulling it out of a dried flower arrangement featuring some panicles of rice in a restaurant in Portugal's main rice growing region near Alcácer do Sal and by writing to a botanical garden specializing in tropical crops - we have such a thing in Germany, oddly located in a small central German town called Witzenhausen - which eventually sent me a small packet of the Italian short grain variety 'Balilla'. I even once managed to extract a single grain that had somehow escaped hulling and polishing from a bag of white rice and got it to germinate. All of those resulted in vigorous plants but when it came to heading the panicles would never fully emerge and the little hulls become mottled with dark brown spots before even opening to flower. I never managed to harvest a single grain from all those plants.

Freshly planted rice in the New England garden two years ago

After moving to America I did not get my hands on rice seed for years, and then in college I also did not have an outdoor space where I could have grown rice. Only in recent years did I get to try again, after being so lucky as to get a balcony and a nice bit of garden space and coming across seeds of some rice varieties offered online - including seeds of the Russian variety 'Duborskian' grown in New England. Since then I have been experimenting with an ever larger variety of mostly heirloom rice varieties. The first two years they grew very well, though only some varieties - those less reliant on shorter days to induce heading - actually flowered in time to produce ripe grain.

My little plot of rice in early summer

Encouraged by these successes - and determined to succeed with a greater range of rice types - I added even more varieties and space dedicated to rice last year. However, there were problems right from the get-go. When the seedlings where just coming up in the sun room in April, a mouse got in the house and one night went on a devastating rice sprout binge. Thereafter not only did I have to restart a substantial portion of my transplants but in an effort to keep them safe from a mouse that forever escaped capture, I also kept them in places considerably less favorable to growth than the bright warm sun room. Consequently, the seedlings that eventually went outside were smaller and sicklier than they should be. Add to this a cool, wet June and they did not really take off until July. Even so, several varieties were ripening nicely by mid-fall; I managed to harvest most of the 'Duborskian' but just as other varieties started joining the party mice invaded the garden and within days decimated the harvest.

Ripe 'Duborskian' rice

In desperation, I dug up the best plants of the rarest varieties I was growing, potted them up and brought them inside to finish ripening. Some managed to; then the mice found their way inside once again and we battled an infestation until after Christmas. Here in Delhi I had not necessarily planned to grow any rice in my little balcony garden. Then I bought a bundle of mint at the neighborhood grocery store and it was tied with a rice stalk with a panicle full of ripe grain so of course I had to plant them. I started a few, the seedlings came up nicely, I bought some pots without drainage holes - the only ones I could find were plastic - and potted them up, only to the see them rapidly get sick and wither away. Birds destroyed two more seedlings. I started over and tried different soil but the same happened again. Finally I planted my last handful of seed but of these only one germinated. That seedling is now planted in a regular clay pot and so far is doing well, fingers crossed. Struggling to grow rice successfully in New England, where rice is hardly a long-standing crop - although there have been amateur growers for a while, and there are small commercial efforts in Vermont and Maine - is one thing, but failing in Delhi, a city surrounded by large-scale commercial rice growing in Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, is truly frustrating. So here is to hoping...


  1. Fingers crossed for your success with rice!

  2. Hi, I have about 22 varieties of rice and would love to swap different types of rice with you.

    I am also a big fan of not only eating rice but growing it too.


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