Our first growing season here at Small House couldn’t be more exciting.. the thrill of breaking ground on a new garden! We had time last fall to build a few raised beds and set up some low tunnels before the snow hit. And when the cold of winter had us in its grip, we kept warm by drinking tea and pouring over our supply of seed catalogs. Making lists and trying to draw out our dreams for what we were going to grow and where we were going to grow it..
And when we dream, we dream big! We decided that we were going to not only need the raised beds we had already built, but that we would need far more space than that to accommodate the twenty-something different vegetables we were going to grow. As soon as the ground was warm enough to work this spring, we were out there.. moving rocks and hauling dirt. We had ten tons of black dirt delivered which was quickly divided up and hauled to the various new growing areas that were under construction. And then it was time to start direct planting some seeds. Just the early spring ones of course, we already had tomatoes, peppers, leeks, gooseberries, broccoli, and cabbage started indoors waiting for warmer days to make their garden debuts. Into the soil went peas, carrots, radishes , lettuces and spinach. And not too much later, quinoa. And that brings me to the topic of this post…
Like I said, our first growing season here couldn’t be more exciting. It’s an adventure. Because we’re trying new things, like growing quinoa. When I would tell people about my plans to attempt to grow quinoa I would usually get one of two reactions.. Either, “What’s that?” or “I thought that didn’t grow in Michigan?” The first question has an easy enough answer, quinoa is an ancient grain from the Andes that has really become quite popular in American health food trends and is one of the latest “superfoods” due to its incredible nutritional value. The second question, not so much. So my answer was something along the lines of, “I’m going to try it.”
And we did. I turned over a one hundred square foot area or so and planted around one hundred quinoa seeds that I had purchased from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. I read up on the basics like how to space the plants, soil and water requirements, sunlight needs, even on how to harvest the seeds at the end of season. I learned that quinoa seed have germination requirements similar to spinach and that the young leaves of the plant are not only delicious but very nutritious as well. I also learned that even if you can get the plant to grow, it still might not set seed properly if the temperatures are too warm.. good thing you can eat the greens! One thing I didn’t seem to bother with was what the young plant actually looked like. I had marked off their growing area well enough and was very particular when I put down the seed. The rows were marked in both directions so there would be no doubt as to whether the seedlings were our precious quinoa or some uninvited spring party crasher.
Spring is a great time of year to be a herbivore. When all of the fresh new plants push their way out of that early spring soil, its not only refreshing for your soul but appetizing to the belly as well. Mother Nature has done a fine job of providing us with exactly what we need when we need it and spring greens are no exception. After the long dark winter eating potatoes and squash, nuts and meats, grains and breads, spring greens are exactly what you need! So we’re no stranger to these tasty delights, two of the most well known being dandelion and lamb’s quarters. Which is why I barely took notice when what appeared to be lamb’s quarters started to pop up here and there in the quinoa patch.. I’ll just let them go a little bit and then bring them inside to eat, I thought. But when I noticed that lamb’s quarters was growing in nice neat rows in the plot I had tilled behind the pole barn where my quinoa was supposed to be.. I thought I should look a little more into it.
There’s a lot going on around here and sometimes you just don’t have the time to devote to something like you hoped you would. My investigation went no deeper than a quick google search to see what a young quinoa should look like, matching the description to what was growing outside, and confirming one more time that the sprouts were lined up with my row markings.. it all seemed to add up, so it was on to the next thing. That is, until Aunt Tina came over to visit.
Among many talents that our Aunt Tina has, she is a walking encyclopedia of plant knowledge. She has the ability to identify wildflowers, shrubs, trees, berries, you name it. Well, I mean, she names it. Its almost as if its a super power. See something on your hike you can’t identify? Take a picture with your phone, send it to Aunt Tina and wait for her text back. With the answer, and usually with the Latin genus of the plant and a few examples of what its used for. Its amazing. So when Aunt Tina came to visit the gardens I took her to see the young quinoa seedlings. She immediately said “That looks like lamb’s quarters. I wonder if they’re related somehow?” So it looks like I was back on the case.
And it turns out they certainly are related. Closely related. First I learned that Lamb’s Quarters is considered a pigweed. Just like Amaranth, another superfood grain. I also found that lamb’s quarters is considered a form of wild quinoa. And just for Aunt Tina I learned that lamb’s quarters is from the Chenopodium family.. Chenopodium Album. It turns out quinoa is also a Chenopodium..Chenopodium Quinoa.
So is it possible that the seed from Lamb’s Quarters might also be packed full of nutrition like its cultivated cousin? That if, in fact, quinoa won’t grow well here in Michigan, we might be able to turn this common weed into a sustainable food crop? Since it is already naturalized to our environment, wouldn’t it germinate well and grow quite hardily without the aid of fertilizers or pesticides? Why aren’t we already growing fields of lamb’s quarters here in Michigan for commercial use?
I’m not sure.. let me text Aunt Tina.