Every health-nut’s favorite staple, quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal crop, meaning it’s a seed and not a grain. The quinoa plant grows similar to wheat and can reach 5–7 feet in height. Originating in western South America, quinoa has recently been rediscovered as a mountain peoples’ crop that thrives in marginal soils with cool nights and general dry conditions. Quinoa comes in many different varieties that adhere to similar growing requirements and vary mainly in color. These colors are apparent as brilliant clusters of flowers before going to seed.
Red quinoa holds its own with the more frequently seen white variety both in terms of tastiness and healthfulness. Many cooks claim that red quinoa holds together better after cooking, which makes it ideal for use in salads or recipes where you want each grain to stand out. Its earthy, reddish-brown hue will help with that, too.
Seed Depth: 1/4″
Space Between Plants: 1″, thin to 14″ between plants
Space Between Rows: 24″
Germination Soil Temperature: 45-60°F
Days for Germination: 4–8
Sow Indoors: Not recommended as this plant does not like to be transplanted. That being said, you can grow quinoa in a container indoors at any time of year. Keep in mind, however, that plants grown indoors will not reach their full height and will produce less seeds. Be sure to use large container to give your plant enough space.
Sow Outdoors: 2 to 3 weeks following the average last frost.
Quinoa cannot withstand temperatures below 28°F and desires a dry climate with dry, cool nights (although some varieties can survive cooler temperatures than others). As this plant hails from high altitude regions in South America, it does particularly well in the summer in mountainous areas. Don’t live above the clouds? Don’t worry! Quinoa will grow in many locations. It just might not produce as many seeds if you are living in climates with higher levels of humidity or extreme heat or cold.
Natural: Full sun.
Artificial: As quinoa prefers a good amount of sun, using a high-intensity light source such as an HID lamp for at least 6+ hours a day will help your plants thrive. Keep bulbs 6″ away from the tops of your plants to prevent burning. Increase distance if you notice the soil is drying out very quickly.
Soil: Prefers well drained, fertile soil but will grow in soil that is slightly sandy as well. A wide pH range of 5.0 to 9.0 will allow quinoa to grow; however, a range of 6.5 to 8.5 is ideal.
Hydroponics: Will grow in most hydroponic systems.
Aeroponics: Thrives in aeroponic systems.
Water: Drought tolerant and quite undemanding, quinoa does not require excessive amounts of water but will be happiest is soil is kept slightly damp. Be careful not to overwater as this plant is susceptible to water logging.
Nutrients: Although not a heavy feeder, quinoa will benefit from light fertilizing just after planting and periodically throughout the season if you are experiencing stunted growth. Quinoa is fond of nitrogen, so a thin layer (1 to 2″) of composted manure will serve this plant quite well.
Mulching: Use mulch to maintain soil moisture and suppress weeds. This is important where you may find weed species that are closely related to quinoa, including lamb’s quarter and pigweed.
Rotation: Practice an annual rotation with a crop outside of the Chenopodaceae family for best pest and disease management.
Companions: Grows well with catnip, garlic, and mint. Avoid pole beans.
Harvest: Harvest after grain seeds have changed from green to a reddish-brown color, and leaves have fallen. This can be after the first light frost, which seeds will tolerate if they are close to mature, but try to harvest before any rains, which can cause mature seeds to begin germination. Cut seedheads from the plant and remove seeds by rubbing a gloved hand along the stem. The grains should be winnowed and then washed well to remove dirt particles and the saponin-containing outer covering which tastes very bitter. Leaves are also edible and can be harvested when young, but should not be eaten to excess as they contain calcium oxalates, which can creates kidney stones.
Storage: After drying, store in a dry cool place in an air tight container for freshness up to a year.
Fun Fact: Each quinoa seed is coated with saponins that must be processed for removal as the taste is unpalatable and bitter. This does, however, offer a great advantage in nature as the seeds are unattractive to birds!
History: Because quinoa was important to the religious ceremonies of indigenous tribes in South America, Spanish Conquistadors once banned its growth, forcing Inca people to grow wheat instead.
Preserve: Keep seeds “as is” and cook to order. Alternatively, process seeds into a fine flour substitute. Quinoa can even be fermented and put to use for gluten-free beers.
Prepare: To cook, quinoa is usually boiled using a 2 to 1 ratio of water to quinoa. Rinse the seeds before cooking. Quinoa can also be sprouted and processed to make sprouted flours, or baked into breads as fresh sprouts.
Nutritional: A great source of protein. Contains essential amino acids such as lysine. Quinoa also has larger quantities of minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, magnesium copper, zinc, and manganese than other grains.
Medicinal: Plasters of black quinoa have been made by ancient civilizations and applied to sprains or broken bones for healing. Quinoa’s fiber and starch content make it a protector of mucus membranes, or inner organ skin, so it can help to ease sore stomachs. Infusion of the leaves is used to treat constipation.
Warnings: Do not consume leaves in excess, because the calcium oxalate content is high and can contribute to the development of kidney stones. Always soak and rinse seeds before cooking to remove any remaining saponins. It is possible, although rare, to have an allergic reaction to quinoa.
Combine the flavors of South and Central America with this Red Quinoa Salad with Corn, Avocado and Black Beans.