An ancient, traditional food of the people of the Andes Mountains in South America, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) has emerged from almost complete obscurity to become one of today’s star additions to the dinner plate. Related to spinach, beets and Swiss chard, quinoa may be a tricky customer in Florida, since it grows best in cooler temperatures -- a relative rarity in that state. Germination may be an issue, but the determined Floridian gardener will be creative in the use of refrigeration and planting dates to coax a quinoa crop even in this warmer clime.
Florida Growing Challenges
As with other crops that prefer cool but not freezing temperatures, quinoa may possibly produce a decent crop during Florida’s winter months. In its native territory, quinoa is grown as a crop at altitudes from 3,000 to 12,000 feet, where nighttime temperatures are around freezing, but daytime temperatures can soar into the 90s Fahrenheit. Average temperatures in Florida dip low enough from October through March to levels more suitable for quinoa cultivation; quinoa plants and pollen are damaged at temperatures above 90 degrees F. Florida’s sandy, nutrient-poor soils are an advantage for once, as they are similar to those in which quinoa grows in the Andes.
Quinoa in the Garden
Planting quinoa in October or November allows for the necessary stretch of cooler days required to produce a crop, which can take up to 120 days, depending on the variety. One of the few commercially available cultivars with a shorter maturity time is the Colorado State University strain “C0407,” ready in 100 days. Because quinoa seed prefers germination temperatures between 45 and 50 degrees F, seed may need to be soaked, drained and then refrigerated for several days to a week to induce sprouting. Sprouted seeds can then be pricked out gently with a needle and sown into the garden from 1/2 to 1 inch deep in rows 14 to 30 inches apart. Give it room: plants can grow as high as 8 feet and become quite wide and bushy at the base.
Quinoa Cultivation Requirements
As the Andes Mountains receive relatively little rainfall, fewer than 21 inches of rain annually, quinoa is well adapted to dry, fast-draining soils of low fertility. Florida has considerably higher average rainfall totals, between 60 and 70 inches, depending on location, so well-drained soil is essential to prevent fatal waterlogging of plants. Quinoa does respond well to applications of nitrogen-only fertilizer, which increases yields and protein content of the resulting seed. Quinoa should be grown in full sun.
Harvesting and Storing
Quinoa signals it is ready for harvest by dropping its leaves so only the seed head remains. Seeds need to be completely dry to store properly. They can either be allowed to dry on the stalk or suspended indoors in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area to finish drying. Place a cloth or sheet of paper beneath each stalk to catch any seeds that fall during drying, since seeds fall away from the head easily when completely dry. Stalks usually only need a good shake or solid whack to dislodge the quinoa. Winnow by pouring the seeds from one container to another in front of a fan, which blows away any unwanted debris or dirt, and then store the quinoa seed in a food-grade plastic or glass container until needed. Before using it in a recipe, be sure to wash the quinoa until the rinse water runs clear to rinse away the seed’s unpalatable bitter coating.
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