Chenopodium quinoa

Introduction: Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa,) has been cultivated in its native Andes mountains for 6000 years and was a staple food of the Incas. They looked upon it as more than simply a food crop, it was also considered a sacred grain (the name means mother grain). It was believed to give a person special endurance (and even heightened psychic abilities) above that to be expected from its nutritive qualities.  As with amaranth, the Spaniards suppressed its growth as symbolic of pre-conquest culture, so its use declined.

Quinoa is sometimes referred to as a pseudocereal (along with amaranth and buckwheat), as it is grown as a grain crop, but isn’t a member of the grass family. In recent years it has become hip and trendy and the price has risen considerably as a result (like food, nightclubs, clothes, property and everything else). In consequence it now costs up to 3 times what it did a few years ago. Ironically this means that peasants in its homeland can no longer afford to eat it (they sell the grain and use the money to buy cheaper food!)

Ease of growing: Quinoa is an undemanding plant that is closely related to a common garden weed. It is fairly easy to grow and can do well in conditions that don’t suit most other crops. It does need a suitably cool growing environment though, and you need to use a suitably adapted variety (some old varieties prefer to grow at high altitude).

Though quinoa is a fairly new crop in North America, it has big potential as a garden crop for the future when greater self-sufficiency may be a goal.

Crop value: Quinoa is that rare commodity a starchy, high protein grain that can easily be raised and processed on a small scale (it is the best temperate climate substitute for rice). If the growing situation is right, quinoa can be an outstanding crop for food self-sufficiency. It is productive, nutritious, easy to grow and requires relatively little processing.

Nutritional content: Quinoa is one of the most well balanced and nutritious of all grains. It contains from 7 – 22% almost complete protein (said to be similar to that of dried milk), with a better balance of amino acids than almost any vegetable food. It even includes lysine which is missing from most vegetable proteins. It also contains vitamin E, several B’s, calcium, iron magnesium, manganese, potassium and zinc.

The seed is a major source of energy, with almost 1700 calories per pound.

The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron (and some less desirable oxalic acid).

Climate: Though quinoa originated in tropical latitudes, it doesn’t have the needs of a tropical plant. It is actually a mountain plant and grows best in fairly cool climates. It doesn’t like very hot weather and doesn’t set seed very well at temperatures above 90°F. It has the potential to be an important crop for Canada and the northern U.S.A.

Quinoa prefers cooler temperatures than amaranth (another Incan staple) and so was the main grain crop at higher altitudes. It is well adapted to the high levels of UV light and daily temperature extremes found in high mountains.

The growing plants can tolerate light frost (to 30°F), and when seed is ripe and the plants are dying back they can survive temperatures as low as 20°F. As a (high altitude) tropical plant it needs short days to start flowering, though modern cultivars don’t show this somewhat awkward trait very strongly.

About Quinoa  

Seed facts
Germ temp: 45 (50 – 55) 65°F
Germination time: 3 – 7 days
Viability: 5 – 7 years
Germination percentage: 70%+  

Planning facts
Hardiness: Half hardy
Growing temp: 50 (60 – 70) 90°F
Plants per sq ft: 1
Direct sow: 2 weeks after last frost
Days to harvest:
     90 – 120 days – seed
     40 – 60 days – greens
Height: 4 – 6 ft  

Harvest facts
Yield per sq ft: 1 – 2 oz
Yield per plant: 1 – 2 oz  


pH: 5.0 (6.0 – 7.0) 8.5

Quinoa will grow well in any soil so long as it is well-drained, but it will be most productive in a light fertile loam. It is extremely adaptable and in South America it is often grown on very poor, marginal soils that are wet, dry or very alkaline (8.5) or acidic (5.0).

Soil preparation: This fast growing plant likes nitrogen, so give it 2˝ of compost or aged manure and an organic fertilizer mix. It also likes phosphorus.


When: Quinoa needs up to 4 months from planting to harvest, so is usually planted in spring, starting 2 weeks after the last frost date (the soil must be at least 45°F). The latest date for planting is determined by counting back 4 months from your first fall frost. Don’t wait too long to plant, or it won’t have time to mature before cold weather arrives.

Where: Quinoa needs full sun for highest productivity. It doesn’t grow well in shade


Direct sowing: Quinoa is usually direct sown, because you need a lot of plants and it germinates well in cool soil (it germinates best at 45 – 55°F). In fact if the soil is much above 65°F it often doesn’t germinate satisfactorily (I wondered why it didn’t germinate in my greenhouse!) Plant the seed ¼ – ½˝ deep, either by lightly broadcasting or in rows.

The seed germinates quickly, so you can soon see if any areas have poor germination. If this is the case then sow more seed to fill in.

A problem with broadcasting quinoa is that the seedlings look exactly like those of the weed lambs quarter. This makes it hard to know what to take out and what to leave in. The best solution to this is to plant in rows, so you can just remove everything that isn’t in the predetermined line.

Thinning: Quinoa is usually planted more closely than the final spacing (perhaps 3˝ apart), to ensure a good stand. You can then thin at your leisure to achieve the desired spacing. As a bonus you can eat the plants you remove as greens (they are good). 

Spacing: The plants are spaced from 8 – 18˝ apart, depending upon the variety and the size of plant required. Some varieties can get quite tall (5 – 8 ft). If you want to plant in rows, put the plants 6 – 12˝ apart, in rows 18 – 24˝ apart.

Some experiments suggest that the closer spacings (3 – 4˝ in row with 24˝ between rows) can produce higher yields, earlier and more uniform maturation and plants with single unbranched heads. Of course these traits are well suited to mechanical harvesting.


Watering: Quinoa has a strong root system and is naturally quite drought tolerant, so it doesn’t need a lot of water (it can produce a good crop with as little as 10˝).

Generally there is enough water in the soil for early growth and as it gets bigger you only need to irrigate if it gets very dry (which is usually later in the season). More water results in bigger plants, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into higher yields (it may also cause greater seedling mortality).

Weeds: The plants grow fairly slowly when young and will need weeding regularly (planting early can reduce weed problems). Once they reach about a foot in height, they are able to take care of themselves.

Mulch: This helps to conserve soil moisture, keeps the soil cool and keeps down weeds. However older plants don’t really need it as they shade the soil and suppress weeds themselves.


Pests: Quinoa is bothered by the same pests as its relatives chard and spinach. Armyworms, caterpillars, flea beetles and aphids sometimes attack the plants, but generally these vigorous plants will just keep on growing and aren’t greatly affected.

When I planted quinoa in Western Washington it was plagued by leaf miners (which also attack lambs quarters) and apparently this is common in some of the eastern states.

Happily birds don’t usually go for the seeds because they are protected by their coat of bitter saponins (though persistent rain may wash away some of this defense).

Disease: When grown on a field scale, quinoa is sometimes affected by

the same viruses and other diseases that affect chard and spinach.

Rain: Heavy rain when the seed is mature can sometimes cause it to sprout. In this situation it should be harvested and dried as quickly as possible.


When: Quinoa is usually harvested when the leaves start to die back. In some areas this may be after the first frosts (this doesn’t harm the ripe seed heads).

You can tell when the seed is ready because it will pop out when you rub the tops. If you can just about dent a seed with a fingernail it is fully ripe.

How: In dry weather you can gather the seed by bending the heads over a bucket and gently rubbing the loose ripe seed into it. The seed doesn’t all ripen at the same time though, so you may have to harvest the primary heads first and come back a couple of weeks later for the rest.

You can also cut the entire seed heads and leave them in a dry place (on a screen with good air circulation) to dry out fully. You then have to loosen the seed from the heads by any threshing means possible. This is fairly easy, as it isn’t tightly held.

The separated grain can then be cleaned by screening and winnowing. Finally it should then be dried even more (it must be fully dry for storage).

Leaves: The seed is not the only part of the plant that is edible. The young leaves can be used as a potherb like the related giant lambs quarters and spinach. It is not a good idea to take leaves from grain producing plants, but you can use any plants that have to be thinned out (and unwanted volunteers).

Storage: The dry seed can be stored in a rodent proof container in a cool, dark, dry place.

Seed saving: If you are growing quinoa for seed, then saving seed for planting isn’t very difficult. Just set aside some of the seed you have collected. It is generally self-pollinated, but some degree of cross-pollination may occur.

If you want to be sure to keep a variety pure, you should probably just grow one variety. If you don’t particularly care about purity, just grow whatever kinds you can find and save seed from your best plants. Do this for a while and you can create your own locally adapted variety (I think this is the best approach).

Quinoa seed is fairly small and you don’t need a lot for planting. A pound of seed is enough to plant an acre of land.

Unusual growing ideas

Ornamental: Quinoa is quite attractive and some varieties have found their way into the purely ornamental garden. Their value for this is somewhat limited because you need a lot of them if you want to grow much grain.


The main thing that has been holding quinoa back in this country has been a lack of suitably adapted varieties (many weren’t well adapted to North American conditions). This is changing and there are now quite a few available and more are being developed (though they may not be easy to find). The grains may be yellow, red orange, purple or black.

Some growers seem interested in its ornamental qualities and are selecting for bright colored flower heads.

Brilliant Rainbow – Multi-colored

Cherry vanilla – Pink and cream

Red Head – Bright red seed heads.

Faro – One of the first varieties to be successful at low altitude.

Cahuil – Another of the first varieties to be successful at low altitude.

Temuco – Orange seed heads. Works well in wetter climates.

Kitchen use

Leaching: The seeds have a bitter coating of saponins which must be removed before they can be eaten. Don’t do this until you want to use the grain though, as it keeps better if unwashed. There are several ways to leach the grain.

The simplest way is to soak the seed in water for several hours, change the water and soak for several more hours (agitating the water can speed this up). You then rinse them until the water is no longer foamy.

You can also put them in a blender at low speed and keep changing the water until it is no longer foamy.

It’s been suggested that you could put the seeds in a muslin bag and run them through the cold cycle of a washing machine. Saponins are a kind of detergent and will foam up if agitated in water, so maybe you could wash some clothes at the same time!

The seed you buy is white because the saponins that give it a yellow color have been washed out.

Using: The leached seeds need no further preparation, they are ready to cook. This is usually done by simmering one cup of grain in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes until it is soft. It can also be added to soups and stews.

The seed can also be ground to flour and mixed with wheat flour for baking. The Incas even made beer from it.

The young leaves can be eaten as a salad or green vegetable.