Quinoa is a pseudo-grain that is high in protein that has taken the world by storm. More people are turning to quinoa rather than rice in dishes because of its high protein, high fiber, gluten-free content. Vegetarians particularly love this plant and its versatility.
If you eat quinoa often, you might notice that it's not as cheap as other grains. The higher cost is because it's valued for its protein content, and the higher demand leads to an increased price. That's why many gardeners want to learn how to succeed at growing quinoa at home. If you're hoping to grow this plant, don't be intimidated – it's not hard.
Interestingly, even though quinoa is considered a grain, it doesn’t belong to the same family as other grains, such as wheat or oats. It's related to spinach. Before going to seed, the flowers turn a lovely shade of red or purple, so it can act as an ornamental plant that adds height to your garden, as well.
The Best Quinoa Varieties
Quinoa comes in several varieties. Some develop into different colors, and some are more ornamental than others. Here are a few you might want to try:
- Biobio: If you want shorter season quinoa, try biobio. Originating from Chile, this variety is red with white seeds, and the seeds are smaller than other plants. While it matures early, it also has a high yield.
- Bright Brilliant: This variety produces edible quinoa, but the colors make it a favorite ornamental for planting along borders. It only reaches 4 feet high and develops into a range of colors – orange, pink, burgundy, white, and yellow.
- Buffy: This variety is buff colored and a cross with Oro de Valle quinoa. It has a high yield and stem strength.
- Cherry Vanilla: As the name suggests, this variety produces clusters of cream to pink flower heads. The plants reach 3 to 5 feet tall, acting as an ornamental border or a grain.
- French Vanilla: You might guess this plant has the color of an ice cream cone. You'd be right. The stalks reach 6 to 7 feet tall with uniform broadheads. Seeds are white or buff, and offer fantastic yields.
How to Grow Quinoa
Quinoa originates in South America, but you can grow this grain so long as you live in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 10. Zones below 4 have temperatures that are too cold for too long. Quinoa takes 90-120 days to mature, so make sure your growing season can accommodate this long growth period. They grow best where summer temperatures don't go above 95℉ in June when the plants start to flower. Mature quinoa can handle some frost but a freeze during the flowering period can render it sterile.
Quinoa needs full sun to grow properly. That said, some shade during the hottest part of the day is ideal.
Luckily, quinoa adjusts to most soil types, but you'll have best results if you plant it in a fertile, well-draining loam. Fix the soil with an application of organic fertilizer to ensure the ground has plenty of nutrients to support the growth of the plants. Quinoa can be a hungry plant!
The ideal pH level is 6.0-7.5, which means this grain prefers a slightly acidic to neutral soil. You can add peat moss or organic mulches to create the right pH level.
When to Plant Quinoa
Quinoa seedlings have little tolerance for cold temperatures, so it's best to wait until after the last spring frost passes. The seeds sprout the best in soil temperatures of 60℉. You also need to make sure you plant early enough in the season to have a harvest, so it can be a balancing act. It takes 90-120 days to have a harvest, so plan accordingly.
How to Plant Quinoa
When the last frost passes, start by loosening and amending the earth. Sow the quinoa seeds in the soil in even rows. One gram of seeds should cover a 50 foot row. The seeds should barely be covered with dirt. Once you plant them, keep the soil moist to encourage germination. The seeds take 4 to 5 days to germinate. Replant any areas that haven't sprouted after one week.
When the seedlings are four inches tall, start to gradually thin the plants to 18 inches apart. Quinoa is a tall plant, so they’ll continue to grow upwards. In dry climates, quinoa reaches around 4 feet tall, but with plentiful water, it can reach 8 feet tall.
How to Care for Quinoa
Once established, quinoa is a hardy, drought-resistant plant. Take a look at what you need to know on how to care for quinoa.
In the beginning, water regularly. Quinoa needs evenly moist soil to germinate and grow in the first few weeks. As the plants grow larger and get established, water during dry spells, but let the first few inches of soil dry between watering. It needs about 10 inches of water during the growth period.
Quinoa originates from South America in the Andean region. Growers in the Andean region typically don't use any fertilizer or manure. Instead, quinoa is cultivated in rotation with potato or other grains to help give the soil its needed nutrients.
Chances are, you live in a much different region than the Andeans and have different soil fertility. Quinoa is a hardy crop, but it responds well to nitrogen fertilizer. However, you do need to be careful not to apply too much nitrogen. Yields will diminish in the presence of excess nitrogen. Stick to a general 10-10-10 fertilizer when planting. Side dress with nitrogen fertilizer 4 to 6 weeks after planting.
Once you have thinned your plants down to the appropriate distance, place several inches of mulch around the quinoa plants to stop the growth of weeds. Mulch helps to prevent the growth of weeds and keep moisture in the soil while regulating soil temperatures.
Quinoa germinates and sprouts quickly, but its growth will slow if surrounded by weeds. For this reason, you need to keep the weeds at bay. Mulching, as mentioned previously, works well, but you do need to be cautious. In the early stages, quinoa resembles lamb’s quarter, a common garden weed. Make sure you aren’t removing the wrong plant and pulling up your quinoa instead.
Companion Plants for Quinoa
Quinoa grows best with the following plants:
Don't grow quinoa with tomatoes (though they taste amazing cooked together).
Common Diseases and Pests
Like many other plants, quinoa grown in its native region tends not to have many pests or disease issues. Those in South America might have some light ridging, which is when it starts to pull up from the soil around the base of the plant.
If you aren’t in South America, you might have some other common pest and disease problems. Here are a few issues you might see.
It's also important to note that no pesticides are approved for use on quinoa, so the only options organic growers have are natural methods and prevention.
Aphids can be found on the underside of leaves, causing the leaves to curl and become distorted. Use neem oil to kill aphids. Gardeners also can introduce predators, such as lady beetles and green lacewing larvae to kill the pest.
Cabbage loopers, also known as inch-worms, are voracious little green caterpillars that love to devour cole crops and quinoa. Once they get established, it can be a challenge to get rid of them. To prevent them from taking hold, rotate your crops regularly and pick off any that you spot. Encourage predators like birds and beneficial insects. Use row covers for vulnerable crops.
If the infestation gets large, spinosad, pyrethrin and BTK sprays can help keep them under control.
If you live in an area with a lot of rainfall, downy mildew will be your biggest problem. The leaves will have irregularly shaped patches of pink and yellow discoloration. You might find some grey sporulation on the top and underside of leaves.
To battle downy mildew, increase the spacing between plants to allow for more air circulation. Don’t water overhead.
Flea beetles – so named because they jump around from leaf to leaf – chew holes in growing quinoa leaves. If you don't have a terrible infestation, ignore them. They won't impact your seed harvest.
A big infestation, however, can be a serious problem. Use a floating row cover on plants to prevent adults from landing and use a garlic spray to keep them away. You can also create traps by smearing petroleum jelly on cardboard and place the pieces around your garden.
Lygus bugs damage the flowers and seeds. They’re flat, oval, and small, about the size of a pencil eraser. These bugs vary in color from pale green to yellowish brown. Try introducing beneficial predators, such as parasitoid wasps and crab spiders.
Slugs and Snails
Slugs and snails can be incredibly destructive. They eat irregular holes in edges of leaves, and they can devour an entire seedling overnight. Take a two-pronged approached to tackle a snail problem. First, remove places that they hide during the day, like weedy areas, ground covers, under stones and boards, or other cool, sheltered spots. Next, hand pick any you see, use slug and snail traps, and use copper foil to create a barrier. If that fails, use chemical solutions like diatomaceous earth and organic slug and snail baits.
Wireworms are the larvae of click beetles that like to eat young seedlings. These pests like to eat the roots of young plants, causing them to wilt and die. Recently tilled ground tends to have a higher wireworm population. Try to space your seeds evenly and plant at the correct depth.
White mold, also known as powdery mildew, is caused by an airborne fungus. You'll notice a water-soaked look at the base of plants, wilting stems, and eventually patches of fuzzy white mold. A garlic spray or sprinkling baking soda on freshly watered plants will help destroy the fungus. You can also help prevent it by growing quinoa plants at an appropriate distance from each other, watering at the base of plants, and keeping weeds away from your garden.
Harvesting and Storing Quinoa
Mature quinoa plants are easier to harvest when you allow them to go through a light frost in the fall. Check your USDA hardiness zone to determine when the first frost of the year is for the year. The seeds are ready to harvest 90-120 days after planting when the seed is difficult to dent with your fingernail.
Wait until the plants start to shed their leaves to start harvesting. Bend the seed heads into a bucket and clip them off. Move to a dry place and strip off the seeds. To do this, use a gloved hand and strip upwards on the stalk. Then, give it a hard shake to free most of the seeds.
Remove the debris by blowing away small pieces of dirt and hull. You can also do this by pouring the quinoa from one container to another in front of a fan. Then, spread the seeds on a screen to dry.
Once dried, quinoa must be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark location. It will stay fresh for about six months.
Remember, before you cook and eat it, you need to wash the quinoa. The seeds have a coating that helps to keep pest away, but it doesn't have the best taste for humans. Washing is a simple, yet essential, step.
While the yield will differ based on growing conditions, you can expect to harvest one pound of quinoa for every ten plants.
Don't forget to check out our best recipes for using up all that quinoa you're growing.
Most people assume that grains such as quinoa are unable to grow in their backyard garden, but they’d be wrong. If you have the right climate and soil, quinoa is easy enough that most novice gardeners can handle it. Considering the high price at the store, growing quinoa can save you money and help you learn a new skill as a gardener. Let us know how it goes!