Quinoa, the superfood we’ve all heard to be one of the best grains to include in our diets. But what is it really, and can one grow it in their home garden, particularly in California’s unique hot and cold weather?
As a whole, quinoa is a gluten-free, protein-packed whole grain seed. Farmers have successfully grown the plant in Northern California, but not in Southern California. This is due to its sensitivity to high temperatures, causing the plant to go sterile and no seeds to form.
Keep reading to look a little deeper into quinoa as a whole with ways to grow it in your home garden.
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Table of contents
What is Quinoa?
Despite being classified as a whole grain, it is not a ‘true grain’ because the plant is not of the grass family. Because of this, it is sometimes called a ‘pseudocereal’. And unlike its counterparts like cereal and barley, it also does not contain gluten. This makes it a popular food alternative for individuals who suffer from Celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant. Not only that, it is surprisingly rich in protein, more than most whole grain seeds are.
Despite its current global popularity, the quinoa plant has been around for 7000 years, located in the Andean region of South America. Unsurprisingly, it is a staple of the Inca people who lived within the area. To this day, it remains to be an essential crop to the people there.
When the global demand for quinoa rose in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, the leading producers supplying them were and currently still are Bolivia and Peru. However, other countries have also begun growing them locally and cultivating different varieties, even here in the US.
Quinoa can come in red, black, or beige varieties, but the common ones you see in the grocery stores are white/yellow. Each quinoa variety has a subtle difference in taste and texture, so feel free to explore around. The US also has its own rainbow variety grown right here in California!
How Does Quinoa Grow & What Does It Need?
Quinoa is usually slow-growing at the start. But once it reaches 1 foot in height, they develop quickly, producing leaves that resemble goose’s feet. From there, it starts to produce flower buds. Once the leaves start dropping after flowering, this means the quinoa is ready to be harvested.
But first of all, how long does it take for quinoa to grow? As a whole, quinoa grows at an average of 90-150 days, depending on the variety. The plant is said to be an “undemanding” crop to grow. It was found that quinoa can thrive in very acidic/alkaline soil, drought areas, low soil fertility, and poor/excessive drainage.
Ideally, quinoa seeds should be directly planted in damp soil at ½ to 1-inch depth. Since quinoa are known to grow in any type of soil, it is best to grow the seeds in well-draining soil where possible. In less than ideal conditions, it’s recommended to plant a couple of seeds in each spot to guarantee at least 1-2 germinated sprouts.
Notably, quinoa seeds germinate better in cool soil conditions at 45-50°F. If the temperatures are higher than 60°F, no germination will occur. This can be compensated by placing the seeds in the refrigerator before planting. Provided the soil contains adequate moisture, the seeds will begin to sprout in 3-5 days. In dry farming, where the plants are irrigated at least once or never by their own means, the seeds are buried deep in the ground where there is enough retained moisture for germination.
As mentioned in the introduction, quinoa is sensitive to high temperatures. This makes it challenging to grow in some of the hotter areas of the US. Not only does it cause pollen sterility and not produce seeds, but it can also cause plant dormancy. The ideal temperature for quinoa plants to thrive in is 59-68°F.
While it may be temperature sensitive, quinoa can handle light frost at 30-32°F. However, when it is in the middle of blooming, it is vulnerable to temperatures below 28°F. But once it reaches the ‘soft dough’ stage, i.e., when the grains start developing immediately after flowering, it can handle temperatures as low as 20°F. Is it just me, or does quinoa sound like someone who constantly messes with the thermostat after their dad specifically tells them not to?
Quinoa is also known to be drought-tolerant. The land it was/is grown in the Andean region is prone to drought; in some cases, the soil is of poor quality with varying pH ranges. And yet, quinoa grows well enough there. The only times they irrigate the plants is when they have begun to sprout and flower, regardless of whether it was raining or not. For the most part, quinoa farmers practice dry farming and let the annual rain do all the work for them. As for its light needs, quinoa requires full sun to grow well, but it’s advisable to give them shade during hotter days.
So to summarise, what conditions are needed to grow quinoa?
- Full direct sun
- Well-draining soil
- Infrequent watering, only important during sprouting and flowering
- Temperature of 59-68°F
A quick note on fertilizers: quinoa plants have shown an excellent response to fertilizers high in Nitrogen. However, overfertilizing with this will lead to a decrease in yield. As of the moment, not much is known of its fertilizing needs.
Where in California Can You Grow Quinoa Well?
Northern California has the ideal cool climate with short days to grow quinoa. In fact, it’s been reported that several farmers are doing fabulously with their quinoa plots there, such as the Lundberg Family Farms.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, quinoa is temperature-sensitive. Given that the southern parts of California tend to be on the warmer side of the spectrum, quinoa has a more challenging time setting seeds there. Some say that quinoa can grow in hardiness zones 4-10. However, I have not found any scientific literature that confirms or denies this.
Depending on where you live in California, the hardiness zone will vary across the whole state. I don’t make the rules; that’s just how California rolls (yum), apparently. The northern and southern parts of the state can range anywhere from zone 5a to 10a/11b.
It’s notable to point out that some varieties may do better than the rest in different regions. This is why aspiring quinoa farmers are advised to start with a small plot of land to grow their quinoa. They go into it expecting the plant to fail and improve on ways to help it grow. To my north Cali folks, you’re welcome to experiment with the available varieties to see which one will grow best in your California region. As for my south Cali friends, don’t lose hope; someone out there is probably developing a quinoa plant that will eventually grow in your area.
How to Grow Quinoa in your Home Garden?
Suppose you’re looking for a little edible gardening project. In that case, you can try your hand at growing quinoa in your garden, be it in-ground or in a container. You can start your quinoa from seeds or seedlings; just make sure to source them from appropriate nurseries and gardening shops. Grocery store quinoa is unlikely to grow as most come from Bolivia or Peru, where the growing conditions are vastly different to the US.
Prepare the following items:
- Quinoa seeds or seedlings
- Well-draining fertile soil (Amazon link)
- Compost. Alternatively, you can also use an all-purpose fertilizer high in Nitrogen
- A large container, 2-3 feet long with 6-7 inches in depth (Amazon link)
Here’s how you can get started:
- First, start off with preparing your soil for your quinoa plant:
- For in-ground planting, mix your soil with compost to make it workable and fertile.
- For container planting, mix in either compost or an all-purpose fertilizer into your well-draining potting soil.
- Plant your quinoa seeds or seedlings into the soil spaced 3 inches apart at a 1/2 – 1-inch depth. Ideally, the soil should be moist beforehand. If it’s dry, make sure to water it lightly before planting your seeds. Don’t water anymore after planting them.
- Water the soil only after the seeds have germinated.
- Once the seedlings sprout and grow taller, thin them down to 2-3 strong contenders, keeping them spaced 12-18 inches. This ensures they are getting enough airflow as they grow taller. Depending on the variety, you can also place a cage to support their growth since they will grow up to 4-6 feet tall.
- Pull out any weeds you see during the initial growth to prevent nutrient competition. Keep doing this to ensure your quinoa grows strong and true.
- Water the plant again once it has begun to produce flower buds.
As mentioned before, you can start to harvest the plant when the leaves have started falling and the seeds dry up. Here are two ways you can gather them:
- Run your hand across the stalk. The seeds should readily fall off and stick to your hands. Catch them in a basket or bowl.
- If they’re not dry yet, you can cut them at the stalks and hang them in a ventilated area to dry them out. Make sure to place a woven mat below it to catch any falling seeds.
Afterward, use a screen or sieve to remove debris on the seeds before storing them in an airtight container. Before consumption, wash them thoroughly in water until it runs clear or is at least not foamy to get rid of their bitter, soapy exterior.
And that’s all there is to it. Happy planting!