Growing grains in permaculture is often looked down upon as a symbol of unsustainable farming practices. Indeed, the annual tillage of the soil to grow monocultures of one type of grain that needs a heavy dose of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has caused an untold amount of damage to the topsoil and to farm ecosystems over the years.
However, indigenous communities and small peasant families around the world have been growing grain in sustainable ways for hundreds of years, and we would do well to look to them to find ways to sustainably grow grain crops to feed our planet.
Recently, much attention has been given to the “anti-gluten” diet. While we believe that whole grain products do offer important health benefits, many people who find that a gluten-free diet is better for their bodies might be interested in growing the pseudo-grains such as amaranth and quinoa. Below, we look at the main health benefits of quinoa and amaranth, and explain some basic steps on how to grow your own crop of these important crops.
Benefits of Quinoa and Amaranth
Both quinoa and amaranth are actually seeds, instead of grains. Their flowering seed heads turn beautiful bright colors such as red, pink, and orange before they are ready to be harvested. Quinoa is a crop native to the Andes mountains of South America and has been grown by centuries by the Incan peoples and their modern-day descendants. It is actually related to a common North American weed called lamb´s quarters which is commonly eaten as a type of wild lettuce. Amaranth was a common crop of many indigenous populations throughout Mexico and Central America. It has a similar flowering pattern to quinoa, but the seeds are slightly smaller.
One of the most unique benefits of both amaranth and quinoa is that they are considered to be complete grains, in that they contain high amounts of carbohydrates (like all grains) while also being extremely high in proteins (like legumes). The protein in both amaranth and quinoa, however, is high in lysine, a protein-rich amino acid that is the same that is found in meats. Along with high concentrations of important vitamins and minerals, quinoa and amaranth then offer most of the main nutrients that our bodies need all in one crop. While most people grow amaranth and quinoa for their seeds/grains, you can also harvest the tender leaves of both plants for a nutrient rich green to add to your salads or to boil in a soup.
At the same time, both of these pseudo grains are relatively easy to grow and don´t have heavy nutrient needs. One seed of either of these plants gives back thousands of seeds in their profuse flowering heads. Furthermore, both quinoa and amaranth can withstand lengthy periods of drought, especially once they have successfully germinated. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) even declared that quinoa was one of the best crops to respond favorably to climatic changes created by global warming. Lastly, both of these crops produce abundant organic matter that can easily be returned to the soil to help improve soil quality over time.
A Perfect Crop Rotation
Quinoa is native to the high-altitude regions of the Andes Mountains in South America. For that reason, it does well in colder and drier climates. Amaranth, on the other hand, is native to the hotter, lowlands of Central America and enjoys more heat and abundant water. It is possible to grow a rotation of amaranth and quinoa in one year.
Begin your amaranth seeds indoors or in a hot house a month before your last expected frost. Once the danger of frost has passed, transfer your month-old amaranth seedling (close to six inches tall by now) to the field or garden bed. The abundant water and increasing temperatures of spring and summer will help your amaranth to grow to harvest in 3-4 months.
Once your amaranth is ready to harvest, you can cut off the seed heads and hang to dry for a week or so before threshing. In the standing patch of amaranth stalks, you can either directly sew the quinoa seed and proceed to cut the amaranth stalks down as a mulch, or plant quinoa seedlings in the rows between the standing stalks.
The quinoa will germinate strongly during the last months of summer and thrive during the usually drier colder months of fall and the beginning of winter. Once you harvest your quinoa, you can then proceed to cut down the rest of the stalks for a thick layer of overwintering mulch that will break down and add abundant organic matter to the soil for a new crop rotation next spring.
Quinoa and Amaranth for Healthier Land and Healthier Bodies
Growing both quinoa and amaranth is a simple way to gain an abundant source of nutrition for your nutritional needs while protecting the soil and actually building top soil over the long run. The different climatic needs of both of these similar plants can be designed into a succession planting scheme that will leave you with an annual bumper crop of these delicious grains.