Botanical Name: Chenopodium quinoa
This was one of my experiments this year that was quite successful. I have been working towards a lower maintenance, more self-sustaining garden design, and as a low-fuss, high value annual, quinoa has definitely earned a place as one of my preferred edible plants.
Since it has been so successful, I frequently mention it if someone asks what I have in my garden. A common response is “Quin..what?”. My wife and I had our first quinoa dish (a delicious soup) prepared for us by our host family in Ecuador, and we wondered what that little curly grain-looking stuff was. We were told it was quinoa, and after we returned to the US and I learned more about it I wondered if I shouldn’t try my hand at growing it. The seed (it’s not technically a grain) produced by the quinoa plant is highly nutritious and has the rare distinction of being a complete protein. It was a highly valued, sacred crop of the Incas. The leaves are also edible and have a flavor and consistency similar to spinach. For more general information about quinoa check out this Wikipedia article, you can read growing/harvest/preparation information, or you can learn more about specific nutritional benefits.
Quinoa has a very narrow, upright growth habit with somewhat sparse foliage, growing up to eight feet tall depending on variety and soil fertility and water. For the small amount of space it takes up, a healthy quinoa plant can produce a significant amount of seed. I was growing amaranth, quinoa and corn in a small 2’ x 3’ patch and even with all the competition the 3 quinoa plants I grew produced about 1/4 – 1/2 pound of seed per plant, with the plants themselves growing between six and eight feet high.
This is the primary reason why I am so excited about quinoa. It was by far my most maintenance free annual this year. I got some seed from the Bioneers seed swap, and in May, I threw the seed on some moist ground and it quickly germinated, took a little while to get established then started growing vigorously. My quinoa received fairly consistent water, but it is a drought resistant crop and if established well initially will produce a healthy harvest even in dry conditions. This suits our Mediterranean climate perfectly, and I will be experimenting more with drought tolerance in the future. In addition to these benefits, the seed heads are covered by saponins, ensuring that your harvest is protected from most pests. It also means that quinoa requires soaking and rinsing before cooking to remove the toxic saponin, but the extra cooking preparation is a small price to pay for how easy it is to grow, harvest and process.
Since quinoa is not widely grown in the US, it is hard to say which climates would be difficult to grow quinoa in. It prefers warm days and cool nights in order to set seed, and like spinach may not germinate if conditions get too warm. Its original habitat is the Andean highlands of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, which tend to have fairly moderate climates.
If the seed heads get top heavy like they did with the variety I grew, some wind protection or support may be necessary if planting in a windy area.
Quinoa in the Edible Landscape or Food Forest:
The primary benefits that quinoa bring to the garden are its low maintenance, drought resistance and minimal space requirements. On top of that it brings two sources of highly nutritious food, greens from the young plants and seeds in the late summer/fall. It will also readily reseed itself, which is a blessing if you site the plant with that in mind, a curse if it was not your plan to grow quinoa every year. The plant stalks, like corn stalks, make great dry carbonaceous material for the compost pile or mulch…just be sure you don’t mulch or compost with the seed heads or you’ll probably have quinoa popping up everywhere!
Aesthetically, the plant itself is not much to write home about. It resembles lambs quarters when it is young, with pleasant green leaves that have a faint silver shimmer to them. As it matures and starts to put more energy into seed production it tends to grow leggy and may start to lean under the heavy seed burden. So if aesthetics are a concern, either some support might be needed, or choose a sunny out-of-sight corner since the plants may start to flop around and look unsightly. As they matured in early August, the seed heads on my quinoa went through a wonderful color change from green to gold, red, pink, very much like how a sugar maple changes in the fall. So, while the plant itself can get a bit gangly and awkward as it matures, it can exit with a bang. This might be dependant on variety, and I’m not sure what variety I’m currently growing. It sure was beautiful though!
I will be experimenting a lot with quinoa in the future, there are so many benefits to this plant that I am very surprised it is not more commonly grown here in Northern America. It may be that varieties have not yet been developed for our various climates, but hopefully more work will be done in this direction in the future. It’s delicious, and it is a very valuable crop to have, especially for vegans.