A quick guide to growing your own quinoa

YES, you can grow your own quinoa here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve been growing successfully here for several years, and get several pounds of finished quinoa from a relatively small amount of space.

Seeds

  • Quinoa seeds naturally have saponin on them, a bitter substance that deters birds and other wildlife from eating them.
  • Most quinoa that you buy at a grocery store has had the saponins removed via abrasion. In the process, that damages the seed’s ability to properly germinate. I personally haven’t had good luck trying to grow quinoa plants from grocery store quinoa.
  • Instead, buy your seeds online or get them from a local friend who grows. My favorite online source is Wild Garden Seed.

Germination

  • I use half compost, half garden soil. A typical potting mix works too.
  • When I do need to buy soil or compost, I go to Lyngso in Redwood City. They are very careful about what they put into their soil, and they are also mindful of sustainability and soil healthy. Cover lightly—if too deep they may not emerge.
  • Just keep the seeds moist for good germination—if they dry out, they’ll die.
  • Make sure there’s good drainage—if they sit in puddles of water for hours, that’s bad. The optimal dampness is “damp sponge” level.
  • The quinoa should sprout within a couple of days. If not, something’s probably wrong.
  • Hint: quinoa, like most vegetable and grain seeds, don’t need sun to germinate. So until they germinate, you can place them out of the sun, where it’s easier to keep the soil moist.

Growing

  • Once the quinoa germinate, then they need sun! Otherwise they’ll get leggy and fall over.
  • Shade cloth is helpful so the seedlings don’t dry out. It gives you some buffer if you’re late watering one day, or if it’s a particularly hot day.
  • Similarly, I find that putting the flats onto the top of a raised bed gives them an extra “moisture bank” from the raised bed soil to tap into. The worst place you can put seedlings is on a wood or concrete balcony in full sun.
  • The seedlings are ready to transplant when they’re about 2” high.  But if it’s been a few weeks and they get to 1” and stop growing, transplant them anyhow and keep an eye on them.

Prepping soil

  • Pre-water for a few days—and cover.
  • The deeper down your soil is loose, the better. At least a foot loose, preferably two or more.

Transplanting

  • Re-water and transplant after.
  • 12” centers.
  • Shade them until they get settled and start growing again.

Watering and Growing

  • I like to keep the soil moist until the plants are about 4′ tall.
  • Once they are established, they need much less water. At some point, lots of water will just make them grow very tall, without any gain in yield.
  • Straw as a mulch can really help until the quinoa canopies.
  • Right after transplanting ,the quinoa may “look at you” for a while, seemingly doing nothing while they establish. They they’ll grow fast. FAST.

Weeding

  • Quinoa looks a lot like Lamb’s Quarters, which I consider a weed. You won’t be able to tell the difference until they’re about 4″ high.
  • The most reliable giveaway is that the leaves of Lamb’s Quarters have a strong smell, whereas the leaves of Quinoa, in my experience, have a pleasant smell.
  • Another giveaway is that Lamb’s Quarters puts out seeds much earlier than quinoa, and the seeds are much more dominant on the plant.
  • You’ll want to pick Lamb’s Quarters as soon as you positively identify it, because it can generate a lot of seeds quickly, which can become tomorrow’s weed problem.

Staking

  • Need to put in stakes or they’ll fall over.
  • I use electrical metal conduit (the thinner one) from Home Depot; Bamboo would be better if you have access to it, but it’d have to be very thick bamboo.

Harvesting

  • When the leaves dry out, the stalks go brown. It’s ready.
  • Pull the plants, cut the seed heads off, and dry them in the sun.

Threshing

  • You can remove the seeds from the dried stalks with your hands.
  • You can also use a home made Bucket Thresher.

Winnowing

 Washing

  • You can wash off the saponin just like how you wash rice. You know you’re done when you can’t taste the bitter saponin any more when you sample a grain of quinoa.
  • At the “Ichican-kan” Japanese variety store in Japantown, I bought a strainer cup specifically for washing rice, that works great for washing saponin off of quinoa. I haven’t been recently but hopefully they still sell it because it’s a great tool for washing quinoa and rice thoroughly, while saving water.
  • By the way, the “waste water” from washing quinoa and rice is fantastic in your garden or your compost pile. For rice in particular, don’t let that water sit overnight in a container because it will begin to smell.

Cooking

  • Quinoa cooks well in a rice cooker. Of course you can cook it on a stove top too.
  • Sweet and Crunch Quinoa Salad is one of my favorite recipes.