Days to germination: 4 to 5 days
Days to harvest: 90 to 120 days
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Water occasionally during dry spells
Soil: Well-drained and fertile
Container: Not suitable for container growing
First of all, the name of this grain plant is pronounced “keen-wa”, and its seeds are high in protein which makes it a nutritious grain to grow. The protein is considered a “complete” protein, a rarity in the plant world. This makes quinoa a popular food among vegans and vegetarians.
It’s not in the same family as the more traditional grasses we grow for grains (like wheat, oats or barley), but it is considered a grain nonetheless.
And unlike the grassy grains, quinoa will bloom with gorgeous flowers before going to seed. The flowers are usually deep red or purple, and look like a large spike of tiny clusters flowers at the top of the stalk.
Quinoa is an annual that prefers cooler weather, and is well-suited for more northern growing. Your summers should not get hotter than 90F or your plants will suffer. Your harvest of seeds can be used like many other grains, typically cooked and used alone as a rice-like side dish or incorporated into any number of recipes.
Starting from Seed
Quinoa isn’t usually started indoors for transplant, but rather just put out into the garden once the soil has warmed to around 60F. This usually makes for an early spring planting, around the time of your last frost.
Dig up your soil beforehand to loosen the earth and to kill any early weeds. Quinoa grows slowly and can have trouble competing with fast growing weeds, so it’s best to get rid of any other growth in the garden before planting.
Plant your seeds in rows, putting them no more than 1/4 inch deep. Your final plants should be 10 to 14 inches apart, so plant a few seeds at each location. If more than one sprouts, just thin down to one in each spot. While you can always sow along the entire row and thin out, it’s a bit of a waste of seed considering how quickly quinoa germinates. If any of your seeds don’t sprout, you can replant them almost within the week.
Quinoa is closely related to lamb’s-quarters, a common (but much smaller) garden weed. As a seedling, they look very similar. So take care to watch your rows when you are weeding to make sure you aren’t pulling up quinoa and leaving the weeds to thrive. And you will be doing weeding for the first several weeks. Quinoa is slow growing at first and will suffer if crowded by weeds. Once it reaches a foot high, it will start to grow much faster and should be self-sufficient.
You shouldn’t worry about watering unless your area has a longer dry spell. Quinoa is very adaptable to dry conditions and will do just fine with minimal water.
Quinoa plants are too large for container gardening, and it’s usually impractical to try and grow just a couple of plants because the harvest isn’t worth the effort.
Pests and Disease
The seeds are coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which will usually deter birds or other pests from getting into your developing seeds. The leaves on the other hand, are more vulnerable to damage from insects such as aphids and flea beetles. Regular pyrethrin-based insecticide sprays can help keep them away but a mature plant can usually withstand any damage from such small insects without much difficulty.
Various other leaf-eating caterpillars like cabbage loopers may be attracted to your quinoa, but usually not in great numbers. Pick them off when you find them, and you should be fine without additional measures.
Harvest and Storage
One of the great things about quinoa is that the leaves are edible too. Pick some of the young leaves and either steam them as a cooked green or just add them to a salad.
You’ll know when your quinoa is ready to harvest when the leaves have all dropped off, and your plants are just seed heads on a stalk. They are fine with a few light frosts, so you needn’t be worried about getting your harvest in before that strikes.
You want your seeds to be completely dry, so try to dent one with your fingernail. If you can put a slight dent into it, then they need more drying time. You can harvest them, and then just allow your grain to finish drying inside.
The dry quinoa seeds should come free from the seed heads with little trouble. A hard shaking should free the majority of seeds. There are no hulls to deal with. Use a fan or the wind to “winnow” your harvested grain to clean out the small pieces of leaves or dirt. In other words, Pour the seeds from one container down into another one, and let a breeze blow away the lighter pieces as it falls.
Once you have your seeds, you will have to wash them. This is one of the unique quirks with quinoa.
The saponin may keep the pests away, but it isn’t all that pleasant for humans either. So, prepare to wash.
Any washing technique will work, as long as the water no longer shows any evidence of foaming (saponin is quite soapy). You can mix the grain and water in a blender and spin on the lowest setting, or even put a mesh bag of quinoa in the washing machine and run the rinse cycle. After washing you will have to let the seed completely dry before storage.
You will get more or less a pound of finished grain for every 10 plants, but the yield will depend greatly on your local growing conditions.
Whole quinoa should be stored in a tight container away from any light, in a cool location. It should last for 6 months or more without any additional help.