02 October 2014

Experimental Gardening: Quinoa

Quinoa is one of the things we like to call Ooh Aah Foods – wonder foods that some of our hippy neighbours consider a cure-all for everything. Originating from the South Americas it really is a wonderful grain, and very healthful; stuffed with essential amino acids, and high in Calcium, Phosphorus and Iron. We really like eating it. Trouble is, its damn expensive.
Back in late Autumn, while I was still largely unable to tackle any serious gardening, I looked at a packet of Quinoa, and, true to form, though to myself, “How hard can it be? I mean, millions of peasant farmers in South America have been growing this stuff for centuries... why shouldn't I Give It A Go?”

So I did. A little research told me that there are many, many strains of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, so quite closely related to the Chickweed that so prolifically sprouts all over our Winter veggie garden) adapted mainly for various altitudes ranging from coastal plains in Chile to the high Andes of Bolivia and Peru. It is a cool-weather species, so definitely something for our usually-sparse Winter garden. On the other hand, we don't get frosts, so we're ahead of the game in that regard.

The packet of Quinoa we had in the grocery cupboard was on we bought off the “health food” shelf of our local supermarket, and originated from Peru, so it looked to me like the odds were stacked against us. I guess that Quinoa from Peru is more likely to be a high-altitude variety, and we are at a decidedly low altitude. Then, too, many imported foodstuffs get irradiated – supposedly to ensure that no produce-borne diseases make it into the country. On the other hand, irradiated foods are usually labelled as such (though not always, since such labelling is not a hard legal requirement) and I would assume that the very reputable health-food packager would be somewhat sensitive to the issues of food irradiation. So my guess was that the Quinoa was not really very likely to have been irradiated, which would naturally kill the germ-plasm, and make germination impossible. There was also some question as to the suitability of our quite heavy soil for Quinoa cultivation.

Nothing daunted, I cleared a small patch in one of the veggie beds, about ½ a metre long, and sowed a handful of the Quinoa “grain” by simply scattering it on the prepared soil surface and raking the grains shallowly into the soil.

Much to my delight, it germinated within about a week or ten days (as my frequently failing memory serves.) It grew away quite happily, though numbers dwindled steadily through the Winter as every bug in the land decided to have a munch on this new, exotic foodstuff. Losses were compounded by my “neglectful” methods of growing things – I tend not to water crops except at critical times. Mainly we lack an adequate source of irrigation water and are forced to rely on rainfall. I suppose you could argue that it is a simple case of bowing to the inevitable, but I call it a “selection pressure” in evolving varieties that grow well under the conditions we have available.

Quinoa Grain HeadsNow it is Springtime, and the 5 or so remaining plants have produced lovely little heads of grain. The plants are a bit spindly and grew to about knee-high before forming flower-heads. As they show clear signs of drying and are beginning to lose of of the grains I pulled the plants out of the ground to finish drying them indoors. The next stage of the experiment will be figuring out how to process the grain further: Quinoa grains are coated in a soapy (saponin) layer that needs to be washed off before the grain is edible. I consider this saponin layer a huge advantage under our growing conditions, as we “suffer” from losing a lot of small seed-crops to birds. The Cabbage tribe are particularly favourite targets for myriad seed-eating birds, as are the (Summer growing) seed Amaranths; the birds have an uncanny knack of stripping out seed pods and heads just a few days before they're truly ripe enough to harvest. I've come to the conclusion that the only solution will be to completely cage such crops if we're determined to grow them. The Quinoa, on the other hand, suffers no such depredations due to its unpalatable soapy coating, so that's a big win!

All in all, I will definitely grow Quinoa again next Winter, and on a much more adventurous scale. This could even be a viable cash crop for us, given the very high prices it commands. I will do things a little differently, though: I believe we will obtain much better yields if we start the plants in seed-trays and transplant them to a more regular spacing in a much better prepared bed. Bug protection will probably be best achieved by interplanting the Quinoa with other trap crops (Buckwheat, perhaps.)

It's been an interesting little experiment, and one that rates as a good success with exciting prospects for our food future, so I am happy to count on it being a regular in our Winter garden.

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