Garden Tips From the Micro Farm Project: How to Grow Quinoa
Grow High Protein Quinoa ("Keen-Wa") in Your Own Yard
Quinoa is truly an amazing pseudo-grain whose seeds are considered a complete protein. Its high protein content is a very fortunate anomaly in the plant world.
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.
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 know 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."
Because of its high protein content, quinoa has become highly valued to vegans and vegetarians as a wonderful protein source. Its popularity has benefited the Andean farmers who grow it. However, 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 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.
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 degrees Fahrenheit. Be certain to plant early enough in the season so that the harvest is complete before ambient temperatures rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 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 2-3 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.
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.
Interesting Facts About Versatile Quinoa Seeds and Plants
The heirloom seed varieties shown below are 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.
One gram of seed will sow a 50-foot row. An acre requires approximately a pound of seed. 10 plants will yield roughly one pound of grain, depending on your growing conditions.
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.
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.
These plants are available in red, , 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. Additionally, Amazon Super Saver shipping is free for qualified orders of $25 or more, so I tend to plan my orders accordingly and stock up. black
Best Practices to Increase the Harvest
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 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.
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, to 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.
Quinoa Pests and Diseases
Pests: 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.
Diseases: Quinoa is susceptible to 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.
It can be damaged by mildews and molds if 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 in 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.
Washing and Cooking Quinoa
Before cooking and eating, it 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 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 is 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 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.
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.
- 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 of olive oil
- 2/3 cup of 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.
What Commenters Say
Quinoa is a wonderful grain. We use it in place of rice when having stir fry or as a side dish prepared as a pilaf. It also gives a nice texture in muffins or corn bread (cooked and stirred in). It's pretty much endless in the way you can use it.
It is an amazing food: I have treated it like potatoes (with sour cream, chives and bacon), like rice (it makes a nice side dish with butter and herbs or a faux rice pudding), and like pasta (try it with alfredo sauce). I even deep fried a bit and sprinkled it on a salad to give some crunch. I like to cook big batches, portion the cooked quinoa into 1/2 cup servings onto a cookie sheet, freeze them, then store in a bag in the freezer. It is also a great grain addition to homemade dog food, especially for rescue dogs that have been lacking in nutrition. I'm growing my own this year. Wish me luck!
Great article, but a bit confusing to say optimal temperature range is 25 degrees F to 95 degrees F and later that it can take a few light frosts. 25 is colder than a light frost, isn't it?
@anonymous: Yes, it does sound confusing. A hard freeze or frost occurs when temperatures dip below freezing for more than four hours. A light frost occurs when temperatures dip below freezing long enough for ice crystals to form, but not long enough to freeze the interior of most plants.
I started using quinoa when I was cut off from cous cous due to my gluten intolerance. Kilbasa sausage is what I make it with.
I LOVE QUINOA! I had NO CLUE that i could grow it. We prefer the black and red to the traditional white and this will be our first year with a garden so I have nothing to lose by trying it!
I learned more than I ever expected to learn about quinoa...which coincidentally I have been mispronouncing to this point.
Quinoa is delicious. If it tasted like dirt I'd eat it because it's SO good for you! Do you water with filtered water? I do.
Quinoa is a bit of an acquired taste for some people, but definitely worth it!! So many nutrients. It's like a SUPER food!!
It's delicious, especially with lemon juice in a salad-like dish.
I bought quinoa flakes that I add to oatmeal. Delicious!
Oh yes, love it, have eaten it for quite a few years now. I never knew how to grow it though, it looks like it would be possible to do in my area.
Joanne Reid from Prince Edward Island/Arizona
It is so healthy but I have been concerned about buying it after reading how it harms the people of Peru that so much quinoa is being exported and the local people cannot afford it. So I am thrilled to be able to grow my own.
Elyn MacInnis from Shanghai, China
Yum. Not a lot of quinoa in China, but you can get it in expensive supermarkets. If I had land available, I would plant some!
With all of my food intolerances, it's one of the food that I can eat freely.
Thanks to your suggestion this year I'll try to grow it. Great!
Love quinoa! I wondered about growing a high Andean plant in cool, wet western Washington. Thanks, I will have to try.
I love it, I use it and cous cous and bulgar wheat as food staples, I am a diabetic and need to watch my sugars and these grains are perfect for that. I have my name on a waiting list for an allotment so I am going to bookmark this page to come back to when I do. Thanks so much for such a useful article, I had no idea that I would be able to grow quinoa myself!
I love quinoa - use it all the time in soups.
I have had it in a salad in a health food restaurant and made a smoked sausage and kale recipe stew and added it to that - It was fine.
I recently started making muffins with quinoa! Amazing!!
Leila from Belgium
I like it and growing it is a lovely idea! Good to know that they can grow even in the uk, so they can certainly grow here on our little garden in Belgium :-)
I found my first recipe for Quinoa Salad in Mothering Magazine fourteen years ago. Every time I make it for someone who has never eaten it it gets rave reviews. It is versatile. I just ordered several seeds packets for our home garden. Your tutorial is very in-depth. I am so pleased to have found it.
What an interesting post! What growing zones can quinoa tolerate? We love quinoa pasta!
@anonymous: Quinoa will tolerate most growing zones, provided that it is planted at the right time in your area. Google your local university extension website to find a planting calender for your area. I have added more detailed information to this lens to narrow-down quinoa's optimal growing conditions.
Leading nutritionists and Dr. Oz see quinoa as THE grain replacing to a large degree rice because of the superior nutritional value.
I honestly don't care for quinoa. It's not for everyone :)
Can't say the name of it but I thank you MFP for bringing it to this ole farm boy's attention. Hope to give it a try growing and eating some day. COUNTRYLUTHIER blessed indeed!
I would like to try it but buying it commercially makes me wonder how it was grown although I haven't as yet seen it in the shops here. I might try getting some seeds and just growing a few plants and see how it goes. I never knew exactly what is was so I've learnt something here today thank you.
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.