Kari Spencer is a Master Gardener volunteer and a local gardening and homesteading speaker. Her family operates The Micro Farm Project.
Quinoa: The Wonder Pseudo-Grain
Quinoa is truly an amazing pseudo-grain whose seeds are considered a complete protein. Because of its high protein content—a very fortunate anomaly in the plant world—quinoa has become highly valued to vegans and vegetarians as a wonderful protein source.
Though it is a broad leaf plant and does not belong to the same horticultural family as grasses that are grown for grains (such as wheat, oats, and barley), it is nonetheless considered a grain.
It differs from the more traditional grains in that it blooms with lovely red or purple flowers before it goes to seed. The seeds are used like typical grains to make flour, soups, cereals, and alcohol.
Growing Popularity and Sustainability Issues
Quinoa's growing popularity has in some ways benefited the Andean farmers who grow it, but not always without other negative effects. While the growers benefit from the higher pricing afforded by the increased demand, price increases have made it less affordable to the local Andean people who rely on it.
Questions about the sustainability of the market have given pause to many socially minded consumers who are weighing health benefits with these unintended consequences to others.
As a gardener, the answer seems clear to me . . . grow your own! Here is how to plant, grow, harvest, cook, and preserve this deliciously healthy grain.
Quinoa Plant Facts and Climate Requirements
- Days to Germination: Four to five.
- Days to Harvest: 90 to 120.
- Light Requirements: Full sun. Short days are optimal.
- Water Requirements: To germinate seeds and support seedlings, water on a regular schedule, keeping the soil evenly moist. Once plants are established, water occasionally during dry spells, allowing the first few inches of soil to dry between watering. During seed head development and harvesting, dry conditions are optimal.
- Soil: Use well-drained and fertile soil with compost amendment. Mulch when seedlings are several inches tall to inhibit weeds, retain moisture, and regulate soil temperature.
- Temperature: Optimal growing conditions are in cool climates with temperatures ranging from 25°F at night to 95°F during the day. Quinoa withstands light frost except during flowering, when it can cause sterilization of the pollen.
- Container: The size of the plant makes it unsuitable for container growing.
How to Plant Quinoa
When the last frost has passed in the spring, sow quinoa seeds directly in the ground. Quinoa sprouts best in a soil temperature of 60°F.
Be certain to plant early enough in the season so that the harvest is complete before ambient temperatures rise above 90°F, as higher temperatures impede growth and seed development. In warmer climates, seeds can be sown in late summer or early fall for a winter bloom.
- Loosen the soil and add a layer of compost.
- Prepare rows, spacing them a foot apart.
- Along each row, plant two to three seeds every 10–12 inches.
- Cover with a thin layer of soil, no more than 1/4 inch deep.
- When the seedlings appear, thin to one plant every 10–12 inches.
- Replant seeds within one week in areas that have not sprouted.
Check for Local Planting Schedules
For precise information about optimal planting dates in your area, do an internet search for your local university extension offices, which generally have planting schedules available for the public and often post them online.
Best Practices to Increase the Harvest
Quinoa is an adaptable, drought-tolerant plant. It thrives in rich, well-drained soil. Once established, it can produce an abundant harvest under dry conditions. During seed head production and harvest, dry conditions are optimal.
Keep planted areas evenly moist, but not water-logged, until seedlings sprout. When growth appears, keep the area as moist as a wrung-out sponge, allowing the soil to dry out somewhat between watering. Seedlings are just as easily killed by too much water as too little, so diligent observation is necessary when the plants are small.
Quinoa sprouts very quickly, but then growth slows and is easily impeded if crowded by weeds. For this reason, weeding around seedlings is essential. Use caution, however. Quinoa is closely related to lamb's-quarters, a common garden weed that is much smaller than the quinoa plant. Their seedlings look very similar, so take care when weeding not to mistake the two plants and accidentally pull up your quinoa. Some varieties of quinoa have a distinctive red or purple cast that distinguishes it from other weeds.
Once it reaches a foot in height, growth becomes more vigorous and less susceptible to weed crowding. Continue to remove lamb's-quarters (also known as pigweed), because it can cross-pollinate with its cultivated cousins and reduce the quality and quantity of your harvest.
Lamb's Quarters vs. Quinoa
Quinoa has few pest problems. As a defense against predators, seeds are coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which deters most birds and other pests from eating the grain.
Aphids, flea beetles, leaf miners, and other insects will attack and eat the tender leaves. Keep them away from tender shoots by spraying with a natural, pyrethrin-based insecticide. Mature plants are generally not harmed by a small amount of insect damage.
Caterpillars, such as cabbage loopers, may be attracted to the leaves. If you see a few of them, simply remove them manually.
For larger infestations, sprinkle around the base of the plants with food-grade diatomaceous earth or treat with Bacillus thuringiensis. Both treatments are organic and not harmful to humans if used according to the directions on the package.
Quinoa is susceptible to a few diseases. Viruses found on spinach and beets may be transmitted to quinoa by aphids or leafhoppers. However, these viruses do not seem to have a significant effect on grain production.
Plants can be damaged by mildews and molds if the soil is waterlogged or weather conditions are persistently rainy. Prevent these conditions by allowing soil to dry out between watering.
Harvest and Storage
Quinoa is ready for harvest in 90–120 days. While you are waiting, pick some of the young, nutritious leaves to steam or add to your salad.
When the leaves have fallen and only the dried seed heads remain on the stalks, it is ready to harvest. As long as the weather is dry, the seeds will withstand a few light frosts.
Allow the seeds to dry out naturally on the stalk if the weather is dry. If the weather is wet, however, remove the stalks and lay them out to dry in a barn, shed or other area that is sheltered from the rain. Dry the seeds until they are difficult to dent with your fingernail.
The dry seeds are easy to harvest. Using a gloved hand, seeds can be easily stripped upwards off the stalk. A hard shake should also free the majority of seeds. There are no hulls to remove. You can "winnow" or blow away small pieces of dirt or debris by pouring the grain from one container onto another in front of a gently blowing fan—or use a screen to sift the grain.
Thoroughly dry the grains before storing by spreading them out in the hot sun or near an indirect heat source. Dried grains should be stored in air-tight containers in a cool, dark location. Quinoa will store in this way for up to six months.
The History of Quinoa
Quinoa began to be cultivated in the South American Andes as a staple food prior to 3,000 B.C. The ancient Incas revered it as sacred and called it la chisiya mama, the mother grain.
Every year at planting time, the Inca emperor would use a solid gold taquiza (planting stick) to plant the first seed. In celebration of the harvest, the Incas drank a fermented quinoa beer, chicha, and made sacrifices of animals, cloth, food, and even children. Quinoa was a source of sustenance for Incan armies, which would march for days on end eating "war balls," a mixture of fat and quinoa.
In 1532, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro reached the Andes. Within a year, Pizarro's men had destroyed most of the quinoa fields, and the Incas were forbidden to practice those ancient ceremonial rituals. Quinoa declined to a minor grain known only to isolated mountain villages that continued to cultivate it in secret.
After centuries of obscurity, interest in quinoa began to revive in the 1970s when it was imported to the U.S. by a pair of Americans who had been introduced to it while studying spirituality in Bolivia. However, though it is grown all over the world, most of the quinoa on the market today is grown in its native Andean mountain region. In Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, quinoa is now widely cultivated for its nutritious seeds, which are referred to as "little rice."
"Quinoa was a source of sustenance for Incan armies, which would march for days on end eating "war balls," a mixture of fat and quinoa."
Interesting Facts and FAQs About Quinoa
Here are a few more interesting facts and frequently asked questions about this miraculous grain.
Black, White, Red, or Rainbow?
These plants are available in red, black, and rainbow varieties. When I make garden purchases on Amazon, I look for suppliers who offer free shipping, such as Hirt's Gardens that ships orders over $6 for free.
There are a number of different heirloom seed varieties from open-pollinated, non-GMO plant stock. They are an excellent option for seed-savers who require seeds that produce a similar crop year after year.
How Much Quinoa Seed Will I Need?
One gram of seed will sow a 50-foot row. An acre requires approximately a pound of seed. Ten plants will yield roughly one pound of grain, depending on your growing conditions.
Quinoa vs. Amaranth?
Plant enthusiasts may have noticed the similarity between quinoa and amaranth. Both are broad leaf plants whose seeds are used as grains.
However, amaranth is a warm-season plant, while quinoa is cool-season. For this reason, amaranth and quinoa plantings can be made successively for a spring and fall harvest.
Is Quinoa Deer-Resistant?
According to information on the seed packets shown below, quinoa is deer resistant. A versatile plant with multiple uses, it makes a striking ornamental flower as well as a food source. Even the young leaves are edible, either raw or cooked.
Washing and Cooking Quinoa
Before cooking and eating, quinoa must be washed. The bitter saponin seed coating that keeps pests away can also be very unpleasant to humans, so don't skimp on the washing.
Almost any washing technique will work, as long as the quinoa is rinsed until the water no longer shows any evidence of foaming (saponin is very soapy).
One method is to whirl the grain in a blender with cool water on the lowest speed, changing the water until it is no longer frothy. It make take five or six water changes to achieve the desired result.
Another technique is to put a loose-weave muslin bag full of quinoa in the washing machine and run a cool-water rinse cycle. Substitute a pillowcase or a stocking if you do not have a muslin bag.
After rinsing, it is ready to be cooked. Bring equal volumes of water and quinoa to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook with the lid on until all the water is absorbed, approximately 12-15 minutes. For a more porridge-like consistency, use a little bit of extra water.
In its raw form, quinoa can also be germinated to activate its natural enzymes and boost vitamin content. A short germination period of 2–4 hours resting in a glass of clean water is enough time for it to sprout and release gases. Besides enhancing nutrition, this process also softens the seeds, making them suitable to be added to salads and other foods in their raw form.
Visit Chilean Quinoa to learn more and read a fascinating article that spotlights two delicious recipes, salmon ceviche on a quinoa bed and a traditional quinoa pudding.
Quinoa is a nutrient-dense food. The grain is lower in sodium and higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc than the more common grains, including corn and barley. Rinsing away the saponin seed coating does not reduce the mineral content.
In addition, the protein content and quality in the quinoa grain is superior to most other grains. Other parts of the plant are edible, as well. The leaves are highly nutritious, similar in texture and nutritional value to spinach.
Due to its high nutritional value and low glycemic index, it is a rising star in the culinary world. However, while quinoa is gaining in popularity, it is still a lesser-known grain. Though common on vegetarian and health-conscious menus, you don't often see it in mainstream restaurants. Furthermore, if quinoa is not prepared properly, it may have a bitter, unpleasant taste.
Recipe: Quinoa Chicken Salad
While potato and pasta salads are perennial favorites, they are seriously lacking in protein and are generally held together by oily mayonnaise or dressings. Not so with quinoa salad! High in protein, tossed with a light vinaigrette with a nutty, fruity flavor, this salad makes a nice lunch or dinner side dish. Take it to your next potluck!
Feel free to adjust the amount or the kinds of dried fruits and nuts in this salad, according to your preferences.
|Prep time||Cook time||Ready in||Yields|
- 1.5 cup dry quinoa
- 2 tbsp honey or agave syrup
- The juice of two medium-sized lemons
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2/3 cup chopped peanuts or almonds
- 1 diced Granny Smith apple
- 1/4 cup sultanas or golden raisins
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries or dried cherries
- 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
- 1 small red onion (diced)
- 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
- 2 chicken breasts (cooked and chopped)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Cook quinoa according to package instructions or the instructions described above. Remove from the stove and allow it to cool.
- In a small bowl, stir together honey, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard. Add olive oil, whisking briskly until blended.
- Using a large bowl, toss together all of the ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Flavors tend to improve overnight when stored in the refrigerator in a covered container.
- Quinoa chicken salad can be stored in the freezer. Thaw completely in the refrigerator before serving.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Comments or Questions about Quinoa?
Charles Holland on April 18, 2020:
Can I make a plea?
Can the writers of gardening advice please stop using the instruction "sow after last spring frost". If I knew which particular frost was "the last one", I'd be some kind of Shaman. As an instruction, it's all but useless.
Thanks for the rest of the site, though.
shahram asgharnia on October 16, 2019:
Your information about Kinawa was very valuable
Shahram Asgharvand from Iran
Faye lyn A. Valdez on August 12, 2019:
Good day! I saw this article about planting quinoa, it caught my attention because me and my friends are interested to start producing quinoa here in Philippines. Sadly we lack information whether quinoa can be planted considering philippines is a tropical country. And is it possible to import quinoa seeds here in philippines??
growownfood6 on January 04, 2014:
It is a habit, born more out of curiosity than need. While buying quinoa at the local mart per week, I often fantasize that I may one day start growing the same in my back-yard.
anonymous on March 19, 2013:
Great info! Thanks for sharing on The HomeAcre Hop!
anonymous on March 17, 2013:
This is something I have been meaning to try. Thanks for sharing the information.
laurenrich on March 12, 2013:
I have not tried quinoa, but this is an excellent lens. It is very informative. Thanks
anonymous on March 07, 2013:
Burning quinoa is terrible. I haven't been able to find any quinoa solutions. Are there any? Or is burning it the point of no return?
anonymous on March 04, 2013:
I really liked this article on Home & Garden â¦..its great information on growing quinoa..contents are understandable and worth to be noticedâ¦it is going to help people find their next insight into grooming up their homes and garden..
Muebles de host on March 03, 2013:
very nice lens. thank you
SteveKaye on March 02, 2013:
Thank you for publishing this lens. I'm glad to know more about growing quinoa. By the way, quinoa and amaranth attract birds.
JoshK47 on February 28, 2013:
I'm always game for growing my own food! Blessed by a SquidAngel!
anonymous on February 28, 2013:
Thanks for this nice info, great lens
happynutritionist on February 27, 2013:
Thank you for this wonderful article. I have a couple web pages that were done some time back, I've added a link to this to each, the first is http://www.happynutritionist.com/2013/01/quinoa.ht... and the second is http://wizzley.com/quinoa/ Thanks again, love your tips.
Darcie French from Abbotsford, BC on February 27, 2013:
Having relatively recently stopped eating meat for the sake of not participating in harming animals, I know I need to get alternate plant based protein. I'll have to give quinoa (and thanks for how to pronounce it, too) a try.
Craig O from Las Vegas on February 25, 2013:
Very informative,I don't have any links to post but just wanted to say I found this to be great info, I am looking to do something similar in my backyard (probably on a smaller scale) and I appreciate the info.
atsad141 on February 25, 2013:
Read also "Quinoa is the most complete superfood" http://babymomhealth.com/quinoa-is-the-most-comple...
TapIn2U on February 25, 2013:
Thank you for the information! Sundae ;-)
aylsbillones1 on February 24, 2013:
Very informative, thanks for sharing
Elyn MacInnis from Shanghai, China on February 24, 2013:
Thank you for the long list of references - that's really helpful.
DanatheScribe on February 24, 2013:
Absolutely wonderfully informative lens! I have bookmarked it as I plan to try my hand at planting some. Thanks for sharing.
anonymous on February 23, 2013:
Love the history you shared on quinoa. As always you have shared a wonderful, informative post. Thanks so much for sharing at Transformed Tuesday.
Kumar P S on February 22, 2013:
Great lens ! Informative. Thanks for sharing.
anonymous on February 22, 2013:
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microfarmproject (author) on February 19, 2013:
@anonymous: That would be wonderful!
anonymous on February 19, 2013:
Great information on quinoa. I will have to pin this. Would you care to share it at my Healthy Tuesday hop? ahumblebumble.blogspot.com
anonymous on February 17, 2013:
Great info! Thanks for sharing this on The Creative HomeAcre Hop!
Mary Stephenson from California on February 17, 2013:
Very interesting article. I have heard of quinoa but have not tried it. Maybe some day I will give it a try, but will not grow it.
shahedashaikh on February 17, 2013:
A really informative lens
EmmaCooper LM on February 17, 2013:
Interesting lens. Blessed by a SquidAngel :)
Gayle Dowell from Kansas on February 16, 2013:
Not heard of Quinoa before. Sounds like a great source of protein. Thanks for the information.
blessedmomto7 on February 16, 2013:
Great lens. I love all kinds of quinoa recipes.
RinchenChodron on February 14, 2013:
Wow - sounds like a delicious recipe! I'm going to try it.
Tom on February 14, 2013:
I like to garden, but I've never tried guinoa. I'll have to try it sometime and see if it is something I'd like to grow.
AshleysCorner on February 14, 2013:
Yumm! Quinoa sound great! Can't wait to try it!
DigiDollars on February 14, 2013:
I enjoy eating Quinoa very much. I have only just started eating it, however it has been a real treat.
Thanks for the great lens.
anonymous on February 12, 2013:
Thank you for this post. I have seen the seeds in catalogues this year but was afraid to try it. I am adding it to my list of seeds for next year. The first time I prepared it, I didn't know you had to rinse it. I thought it was pretty nasty. Then my friend told me to rinse it and now I love it.
Linda Jo Martin from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on February 12, 2013:
What a great idea - to grow your own...
DDLewis on February 11, 2013:
Great lens. I've been eating quinoa for several years now and now know more about it.
Elyn MacInnis from Shanghai, China on February 11, 2013:
Quinoa is so interesting - I had never heard of it until the last 20 years or so. Nice to know I could grow it if I wanted to.
Rosetta Slone from Under a coconut tree on February 08, 2013:
We have a farm in the tropics and I always thought it wouldn't grow here because it comes from a cold mountain climate. You've convinced me to try!
askformore lm on February 08, 2013:
I have often eaten quinoa, but never grown it.
LadyDuck on February 08, 2013:
I tried to grow quinoa in my garden (I an in Swtzerland), but even if protected, it did not survive the Winter.
microfarmproject (author) on February 06, 2013:
@nicenet: Yes, it can! Quinoa actually prefers tropical climates.
nicey on February 06, 2013:
I would like to ask if quinoa can be grown in tropical countries?
Thanks for the information.