Pronounced “keen-wah,” this trendy grain is not a true grain at all because it does not come from the grassy plants we typically grow to harvest grains, such as wheat, oats, and barley. Unlike the grassy grains, the quinoa plant produces beautiful clusters of tiny dark red or purple flowers.
Quinoa, a member of the amaranth family, is a flowering annual plant grown primarily for its edible seeds. The grain hails from the Andean regions of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile, where humans domesticated it for food between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago.
Quinoa is a trendy food for a reason. In fact, it’s so popular that the Food and Agriculture Organization named 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa.” The grain on its own is a complete protein, making it especially ideal in a vegan or vegetarian diet. Quinoa is also gluten free, making it a useful grain option for those on a gluten-free diet. Plus, quinoa is just plain good for you. The grain is packed with every single amino acid and is an especially rich source of iron, magnesium, vitamin E, potassium, and fiber.
Quinoa can be used in a variety of ways. Although not commonly available in the grocery store, quinoa greens can be eaten, as the plant is related to beets, chard, and spinach. Quinoa seeds are what we commonly eat, though. Quinoa can be eaten by itself or incorporated into a variety of recipes. You can even make flour out of quinoa.
Growing Conditions for Quinoa
Quinoa is a warm-weather crop, so it requires full sun. However, the plant does not do well when temperatures reach over 90°F. Ideally, soil temperatures should be somewhere between 60°F and 75°F to germinate the seeds. For this reason, it is best to plant quinoa either at the end of April or the beginning of May. The plant can be grown in zones 4 and up. The pH of the soil should be between 6 and 7.5, and the soil itself should be loamy and well-drained
How to Plant Quinoa
You can use quinoa seeds purchased from a grocery store only if they are unwashed or prewashed. Polished seeds will not grow. Quinoa is usually not started inside and then transplanted outside. Rather, sow quinoa seeds directly into the soil. Prepare the soil before planting by digging it up and loosening it. Plant quinoa seeds no more than a quarter of an inch deep in rows between 10 and 14 inches apart. The seeds will begin to sprout approximately four to 10 days after planting.
Care of Quinoa
Quinoa can be a little demanding at first, but it becomes easier to manage as it grows. At first, you will have to be diligent about weeding your garden because quinoa can easily become crowded by weeds. Be careful when weeding, however, because a common variety of weed, lambsquarters, looks very similar to baby quinoa plants. The plants are very slow to grow at first, but once they reach about a foot in height, they should begin to grow rapidly. Quinoa actually thrives in dry conditions and is therefore quite drought resistant. Only water your quinoa if it is particularly dry.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Quinoa
The seeds are coated with a bitter-tasting phytochemical called saponin, which should keep birds and other large pests from disturbing the seeds. Once the plant begins to grow, the leaves may be in danger from insects, such as aphids or flea beetles. There are many natural methods you can use to deter these pests. Additionally, snails, slugs, and leaf-eating caterpillars may come pay your garden a visit to snack on the quinoa’s leaves. These bothersome guests can easily be picked off.
There are a few diseases that impact quinoa, but not much is known about them. Downy mildew is the most common disease affecting quinoa. Other issues that quinoa might face include damping off, leaf spot fungi, and brown stalk rot, though these are less common than downy mildew.
Although not commonly found in the grocery store’s produce section, quinoa greens can be cooked and eaten or used in salads. Quinoa seeds can typically be harvested between 90 and 120 days after germination. Really, they can be harvested any time after the color of the seeds changes from green to calico.
The seeds will fall out of the seed head easily when they are ready to harvest. An easy method is to get a large paper yard bag and hit the seed heads against the sides of the bag. This way, the seeds and the chaff will all collect at the bottom of the bag. Afterward, you will need to separate the seed from the chaff. Because this can be quite messy, it is best to do this outside.
The seeds are covered with that bitter-tasting saponin to protect them from birds, so be sure to wash your seeds before eating them. You can rinse quinoa in cold water, as you would rice. Rinsing the seeds will also remove any lasting bits of chaff. Store your quinoa in an airtight container away from light for up to six months. You should get approximately a pound of quinoa from every 10 plants.
Quinoa Varieties to Grow in Your Home Garden
Did you know that there are more than 120 varieties of quinoa? These varieties of quinoa are very subtle in their differences. The most common types of quinoa available are black, red, and white.
Black-seeded varieties tend to remain very gritty when cooked, though they has an earthier, sweeter taste. Red quinoa is usually used in salads because it holds its shape better during the cooking process. White quinoa seeds and leaves are much better suited to cooking—this is the type most commonly found in the grocery store.
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