How to Grow Quinoa



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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

Introduction

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.

Growing Instructions

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.

Containers

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.

104 Responses to “How to Grow Quinoa”

  1. SvenOfGitchiGumee  Says:

    For all of those interested, but especially those who are asking about growing quinoa in hot / wet / windy / tropical climates: I took a course in plant physiology from a well-respected forester by the name of Graeme Berlyn at Yale University, and so I will share some of what I learned about plant physiology in general, and the reasons why plants prefer certain climates over others. I do not have direct experience with this crop, so don’t put my words on a pedestal; my only hope is that this will serve as a useful general guide for your own tests growing quinoa.

    For most plants, stress management is the primary purpose for their specific biological traits: their shape, their chemistry, and their physiology.

    Light is actually one of a plant’s main stressors. Light is the source of a plant’s energy, and is highly necessary for growth; but whenever a photon of UV light collides with a molecule of water, there is a chance of producing what botanists call a “reactive oxygen species”. These are examples of what nutritionists also call “free radicals”; they are chemically-reactive varieties of oxygen that can damage the cell. “Antioxidants” are chemicals that plants produce to eliminate reactive oxygen species.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactive_oxygen_species

    Light can also damage the plant in other ways: photobleaching is the scientific word for damage to plant pigments like chlorophyll, the main chemical which harvests the energy of light for the plant to use. Just as how a strong wind can damage a windmill, strong light can damage chlorophyll, requiring the plant to spend energy to repair its light-harvesting structures.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photobleaching

    Quinoa is a high-altitude plant. Due to the thin atmosphere, high-altitude environments require strong defenses against UV light; and while, again, I have never studied quinoa itself, we can expect that surely the plant has developed some kinds of defenses against free radical damage. However, because plants of this species have grown to expect high UV light levels, when they are grown in an area with lower UV light levels, such as areas at sea-level, or areas in temperate climates, it is possible that the anti-light defenses may cause problems.

    One of the ways plants defend against UV light is by using chlorophyll in the top layer of the leaf to shade the chlorophyll in bottom layer of the leaf. This prevents the bottom layer from being damaged, and so photosynthesis can happen safely there. However, if quinoa’s anti-UV defenses are too strong, it may be that the top of the leaf shades out the bottom leaf, and not enough light gets through. It is possible that quinoa plants have the ability to adapt when grown in lower-altitude, thicker-atmosphere conditions; but this is unknown.

    Therefore, if you are trying to grow quinoa at lower elevations, you may want to try growing during a time of year with fewer clouds; in some areas, that may be the only time of year where it will receive sufficient light to grow well.

    However, light is only one dynamic. There are many processes that influence whether plants grow well.

    Water is a necessary component of photosynthesis; it is the lifeblood of the plant, allowing the movement of crucial minerals from the roots to the leaves, and allowing as well the crucial movement of leaf-produced sugars down to the roots. Without a constant flow of water up a plant’s stem and out its branches, a plant’s leaves are unable to feed the roots, and the roots unable to mineralize the leaves.

    However, water is a double-edged sword. Water is also necessary for plant pathogens, for the fungi and bacteria and viruses that attack plants. A plant wants to have sufficient water, but it does not want its predators to fare so well.

    When a plant has adapted itself to desert environments, it has adapted itself to an environment that is much more difficult for pathogens to thrive in. When it grows, it will not always expect to encounter aggressive infections of molds or mildews; and it may not have adequate defenses to prepare itself for the type of underground chemical warfare that occurs in normal moist soils.

    However, these processes become more complicated once we consider the effects of heat.

    The main way that heat stresses plants is by causing extra loss of water. Water evaporates more quickly when it is hot; and so a plant that is grown in a cold desert will experience less loss of water than a plant that is grown in a hot desert.

    Moreover, plants do not actively transport water. Water moves up a plant’s stem only when water is evaporating from its leaves. The evaporating water on a leaf’s surface sucks water up the stem like water being sucked up a straw; plants are constantly breathing water out into the air: this process is called evapotranspiration. If a plant is not adapted to reduce transpiration during hot temperatures, it may lose its water.

    Water is not the only chemical which reacts differently in hot environments; most chemical reactions take place more quickly in hot environments. Because of this, heat can trigger all sorts of developmental changes in plants; and not all of these can be predicted based only on knowledge of the plant’s climate of origin.

    Again, I have never studied quinoa directly; however, based on what I know about plants in general, I can say that it is possible that quinoa damage in hot conditions comes from too little water. If you wish to grow quinoa in large fields in hot climates, irrigation might improve growth and yield. However, given the plant’s dryland origins, it is possible that overwatering may encourage molds to damage the roots.

    Therefore if, in your testing, a crop fails under irrigated or naturally-wet conditions, observe the roots; if you find mold or mildew damage, this will inform your search for methods of preventing such crop failures in the future.

    Windy conditions are a far simpler stress both to understand and to alleviate; if you find that the winds cause your plants to collapse, you can try installing a physical brace. If that’s impossible, a belt of trees or shrubs to shelter the plants from the wind might help.

    I hope the above information is useful; to all, good luck and God bless.

  2. Nicki  Says:

    I few just two plants in a container, just for fun really. I have about a cup of seeds from the two plants. Not bad! I had problem with aphids at the end, just before I harvested. Otherwise no problems at all in Whistler BC (altitude 700 m.). The plants grew to be about 1 meter high and were fairly drought resistant.

    My question is: with washing the seeds is it necessary as a separate step before storage? . Could I store the seeds and then before cooking, wash the seeds really well to get rid of saponins?

  3. Andrea  Says:

    to Nicki: Yes, I have bought quinoa that needed to be washed before cooking, so I am sure you could store first, wash later.

  4. Dave  Says:

    I live in Barrie Ontario. This was my second summer growing quinoa. Last year I had 60 plants and about the same this year. I’m watching the weather and waiting another few weeks before I harvest.

    I don’t wash the seeds before storage. I’ve already given them a vigorous cleaning with a dry fine mesh strainer so all that remains is the saponin. I will then give it a proper rinse when I want to cook it.

    Many of the plants exceeded 6 feet and a few were over 8 feet. Be prepared stake well the first time. The colours when in full bloom are incredible to absorb while walking through the plants. The leaves are healthy to eat so in spring I have a great source of greens for smoothies while I wait for the spinach to mature.

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