You’ve almost certainly of this cereal crop from the Andes. In fact, many readers have probably tasted quinoa in a restaurant salad bar. You may even have cooked it yourself! But can you grow your own quinoa (KEEN-wah)? That’s a very different story, but yes, many home gardeners will find it very easy to produce.
A Long History
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a member of the Amaranthaceae family and is closely related to lamb’s-quarters (C. album), a pernicious (but edible) annual weed of fields and gardens. In fact, the plants are so closely related they will actually cross if the two grow side by side, giving hybrid plants of lesser culinary value (so don’t save quinoa seed for resowing if lamb’s-quarters is growing nearby).
Interestingly, its leaves and flowers are also edible when harvested young and you can also germinate seeds for use it as sprouts. The “green parts” have a sweet-sour taste somewhat like spinach, another relative. Even so, quinoa is best known as a cereal crop, therefore grown for its edible seeds. Rich in carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and many minerals, but gluten-free and low in fat, quinoa is a true health food. The seeds can be cooked like rice (they’ll look a lot like couscous) or ground into flour.
Cultivated starting some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago in the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia and Peru, therefore high in the Andes, quinoa was originally a high-altitude crop adapted to arid conditions and alkaline, saline soils. It even put up with frosty nights (in parts of Bolivia where it is grown, there are over 200 nights with light frost each year). Even so, by the time of the Spanish conquest, native peoples had developed cultivars able to grow at lower altitudes, under warmer conditions and in many kinds of soil.
Today’s varieties all need well drained, moderately acidic to very alkaline soil (a pH 4.8 to 9.5) and will readily put up with saline soils. Quinoa still prefers cooler growing conditions and will survive nights of 25˚ F (-4˚ C) even while in full growth. It’s not a good crop for hot summer climates: temperatures over 95˚ F (35 ° C) will cause the crop to abort, but it has potential for much of Canada, the Northern US and Europe and high altitude regions of both continents.
Theoretically, quinoa needs a long growing season, but there are now a number of varieties suitable for short-season climates (90–100 days). It grows best in areas where the beginning of the growing season is relatively moist, but the end of the season is distinctly dry and above all, not rainy. A rainy fall can annihilate the harvest, causing seeds to germinate on the plant!
Sow quinoa early in the season, when the air is relatively warm during the day, but the soil is still cool, because it germinates better at cool temperatures. Depending on where you garden, you can sow it as early as March (Deep South) to the end of May (Canada). To speed up the harvest in short-season areas, you can also sow indoors 3 or 4 weeks before the last frost date.
Quinoa needs full sun and a well-drained soil. In clay soils that tend to remain wet for long periods in the spring, quinoa is best grown in raised beds or on mounds to ensure proper drainage. The soil does not have to be rich and, in fact, in its native South America, it is grown on marginal soils where other crops fail to prosper.
There are different ways of growing quinoa, but I suggest using an intensive approach so you can produce more crop in less space. Sow seeds about ¼ inch (7 mm) deep and about 4 inches (10 cm) apart, then thin to 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) in all directions (in the French-intensive method or square foot gardening) or in furrows 20 inches (50 cm) apart (when you grow it as a row crop). Thinnings can be eaten, so munch on them as you thin or collect them for a fresh spring salad.
Seeds will germinate in as little as 3 to 5 days. In regions where soil temperatures are likely to be high, lightly moisten the seed and place it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a week before sowing. This will help it to germinate in spite of the warm soil, Quinoa is not very resistant to competition, so as soon as the plants are tall enough to allow you to do so, hand weed thoroughly then apply mulch 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) thick. This will keep further weeds from germinating.
One thing you usually don’t have to worry about with quinoa is seed-eating birds: the saponins that cover the seeds make them distasteful to our feathered friends.
Quinoa usually requires almost no care, although do watch out for slugs… and keep weeding if you didn’t mulch. In case of drought, don’t hesitate to water, at least early in the season, but stop until when the plants start to bloom: after flowering, they prefer distinctly dry conditions and watering will rarely be necessary.
How to Harvest and Prepare Quinoa
Quinoa is a tall plant (up to 8 feet/2.5 m for some cultivars) bearing very dense seed panicles near the tip of the plant. The seeds, green at first, turn various colors when they mature—beige, yellow, ocher, red, etc.—and have some ornamental value in the garden. Harvest them when the panicles have reached their final color and the seeds detach readily. Traditionally, you would allow them to mature on the plant, but in areas where there is a risk of rain or severe frost at harvest time, cut the stems early and hang them up indoors in an upside-down position to dry.
Harvesting is not enough: like most cereals, you have to physically separate release the seeds from the stems.
First you’ll have to thresh quinoa. Lay out a sheet of plastic and beat the seeds with a rake or bash them against a board. Then manually remove the larger pieces of waste before pouring the seed through a kitchen strainer to remove even more chaff.
To separate the seeds from the remaining chaff, you have to winnow the seeds. On a dry but windy day, pour the seeds from a bucket about 4 feet (1 m) above the ground into a container on ground level. The heavier seeds will fall into the container while the wind carries off the chaff. Repeat several times if necessary, until the seeds are quite clean.
For cooking purposes, quinoa seeds will last for years as long as you store them dry. If you’re storing seed for resowing in the future, it will germinate well after three or four years after it is harvested.
Cooking With Quinoa
Cooking is not my specialty and I suggest you look for books or cooking websites for recipes using quinoa. However, before cooking quinoa, it is important to rinse the seeds thoroughly to remove the bitter saponins that cover the seeds.
The Right Variety for Your Conditions
There are varieties of quinoa that are suited to almost any combination of growing conditions, but that means you have to find those varieties! Many traditional varieties from the Andes, for example, won’t ripen well in the North American gardens where days shorten at the end of the season. So, the quinoa seeds you bought in your local health food store are not necessarily going to grow well in your climate.
I suggest you use varieties recommended by a local garden seed supplier. They’ll have a good idea what grows best under your conditions.
Do note that there are some truly outstanding and easy-to-grow commercial varieties now being offered to farmers … but that have yet to reach retail seed suppliers. You’ll most likely have to make do with heritage varieties, such as ‘Brightest Brilliant Rainbow’ (a multicolored blend also sold as ‘Rainbow Mix’), ‘Mint Vanilla’, ‘Oro De Valle’ and ‘Red Head’. They are all varieties especially recommended for short season climates.
Where to Find Seed
Quinoa seeds are not yet well enough known to be found in most garden centers: you’ll likely have to order seeds by mail. Here are some sources you could look into: Richters Herbs (under the name huizontle) and West Coast Seeds in Canada, Wild Garden Seeds, Territorial Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in the United States and Association Kokopelli and Suttons Seeds in Europe.
Enjoy growing your own quinoa!