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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Growing Quinoa: Feedback please

A young neighbour of mine, Oisin Coakey is starting his final year in agriculture in CIT. He is hoping to do a project on quinoa and would like to hear from other people who have tried growing it. So please let us know how you got on if you grew it. Here is a summary of my experience with it.

Quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa, is a small grain crop from South America. It is in the same family as spinach and beet, and is even more closely related to the weed Fat Hen or Lamb's Quarters, Chenopodium album, which which it can cross. It was domesticated in the Andes several thousand years ago. It is known there as 'the mother of all grains'. It is a hardy annual crop that is tolerant of both low temperatures and low rainfall. It grows from the coast to altitudes over 10,000 feet.

It is valued for its high protein content and the quality of the protein, which contains a complete balance of amino acids for the human diet. It is as good a source of protein for babies, as milk powder, and as it is not a cereal, it is gluten free. The leaves can also be eaten as salad or cooked like spinach.
Quinoa seedlings in May 2010
I have been growing small patches of quinoa for three years now. The first variety I tried, in 2009, was Temuco, which I chose from the Real Seeds catalogue, on the grounds that the heads stood up to bad weather better than other varieties. In 2010 I grew a larger patch of Temuco and a few plants of another variety, Red Head, which I got from Adaptive seeds in Oregon. Red Head had been selected for open heads that stood up to damp weather, by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds. This year I got some seed from Kai Schulze Boeckenhoff, in Ballydehob. He has been growing quinoa for several years from multi coloured seed he originally got in the healthfood shop. I chose his variety this year as I found it difficult to get the awful tasting saponins off the Temuco. Kai said that he removed the saponins simply by washing the seeds in water. So, I am looking forward to seeing if his cleans up more easily than the Temuco.
Quinoa in June 2010

Like its relative Fat Hen, quinoa grows like a weed. It is almost indistinguishable from it when it is young. I grew it in rows about a foot apart and thinned the plants to about an inch apart. They could have been thinned a lot more. In 2010 it was sown on the 9th of April but it was a bit later in 2011, I think, but I forgot to record the date.

Quinoa in July 2010
Quinoa August 2010
Quinoa can cross with fat hen and I think some of the chunky looking plants on the left above were hybrids. They had more branched stems like Fat Hen and were very vigorous.

2010 harvest of quinoa variety Red Head
I harvest quinoa when I see the birds starting to do it. I left the Red Head a bit too long and the birds got a lot of the seed.
2010 harvest of quinoa variety Temuco
We got the Temuco in in fine weather, tied it in bundles and let if finish drying in the Poly tunnel. We threshed it by running it through the shredder and then winnowing. The Temuco yielded over 2kg from a bed about 8sqm. I think that works out at 2.5T/ha Given that a 1kg bag in the health food shop costs €6.92 this could be a valuable alternative crop for Ireland if mechanised harvesting and removal of the saponins from the seed coat were possible.

I haven't found an easy way easy way to remove the saponins from quinoa seeds yet. I have toasted it on a pan until it starts to pop like popcorn and then rubbed it in pestle and mortar, simulating the process used in the Andes of heating it and then dancing barefoot on the grains in a stone basin. Yellow dust accumulates and can be removed by sieving the seeds. This removes a lot but it must still be rinsed a good deal while cooking, several changes of water will pretty much remove the rest. Alternatively, soaking the seeds in an alkaline solution before cooking, with several changes of water also works. For an alkaline solution I have used bicarbonate of soda and wood ashes both of which worked better than plain water but it still took a lot of rinsing.


  1. I imagine that spraying with a dessicant/sticker then combining when dry would work. This is how they used to harvest oilseed rape before modern shatter-resistent varieties were available. I wouldn't do it because I am organic, however, I'm sure the washing and abrasive processing would get rid of the chemicals if it were done this way.
    Alternatively it could be harvested with a windrower with or without sticker, this was also a technique used for rape years ago before the use of dessicants became popular. I don't know if it would be easy to find a windrower machine these days, or an old-fashioned reaper/binder, which would be another possible alternative.
    I always fancied that Quinoa and Amaranth were better suited to a cold-dry end to the growing season such as might be found in continental climates like the grainbelt of US/Canada or Russia/Ukraine. The Maritime climate with it's wet autumns presents problems with these uneven ripening crops.
    Regards, Kev.

  2. Thanks for your comments Kev. Yes, damp weather at harvest time is a problem. Kinsale CSA had their crop sprout in the heads in the recent misty weather. I harvested mine a little green and brought it in. i think a reaper and binder would work well. It could then be threshed in a number of ways. I would love to know what kind of machinery would be needed to remove the saponins, it must be available as quinoa for sale has been processed.

  3. Wow alot of interesting questions to be drawn up and sum novel solutions to look into thanks guys, also i have been asked as to whether i wud encorporate Spelt into my study just in the past couple of hours as i will then have something to compare my research on Quinoa with. Anyone come across spelt before??? dis is Oisin Coakley conducting the study btw

  4. Quinoa has grown well in Connemara in 2011. Needs staking, but good to work with from a kitchen garden point of view, great as a rice replacement in things like sushi or risotto type dishes - far easier to grow and deal with than wheat in things like Tabouleh
    Will be doing a write up soon

  5. a few days ago i read in a german health and naturopathy magazine, that quinoa and amarantine (so called inca-food) are among the best 'grains' to help with depression as both can raise your levels of serotonine - still cheaper than antidepressants. great idea for the coming dark months (after a rather dark summer). cheers from glengarriff, eliane

  6. @Simon I never thought of using it for sushi, I will definitely try that. Looking forward to your write up. Thanks Elaine, i will need that.

  7. I think what's really needed is winter hardy quinoa which would then ripen early the following summer when, around here at least, the weather tends to be drier. If a variety could be found that could be as an overwintering green manure/crop after the potato crop has been lifted, that would be excellent. Humidity levels here, even if it isn't raining, mean that late maturing quinoa is just mildewy and sprouting in the heads by the time it's harvested. Shame, as it's a very tasty plant - both leaves and seeds.

  8. just found a great quinoa blog describing growing harvesting, removing saponins etchttp://growgather2eat.wordpress.com/category/grains-and-pseudograins/quinoa/

  9. Great stuff! I think I just created another "black quinoa", by intentionally hybridizing lamb's quarters (same thing as "fat hen", I believe) in southeast Ohio. I'm not certain yet which species of lamb's quarters I had - Chenopodium berlandieri or Chenopodium album, but probably Chenopodium berlandieri. Looks like we have both growing here. Do you have any seeds of your apparent cross available? Thanks!

    1. I will root out some seeds for you. I have noticed a few black seeds in some of mine. I don't know if it is a cross or just weed seed in it. I think it is album that we have around here. email me your address to madsmckeever(at)eircom.net

  10. Of course we're looking at your blog. You're part of the solution to pollution and starvation. Thanks for the great pictures. One of the hardest things is recognizing plants in their initial stage compared with their mature stage. Keep up the good work. I hope to be able to share pictures of my own fields of quinoa next year. Meanwhile, I'm working on the domestication of lambs quarters and red root amaranth.

    There really are no food shortages due to natural causes, only man made causes.