Grow Amaranth Plants for Grain

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/TAIFTIN
Learn how to grow amaranth plants for grain on the homestead.

Grow amaranth plants for grain, this edible plant is not only colorful but its grain is nutritious.

Grow Amaranth Plants for Grain

Make protein-rich bread from homegrown amaranth,
the “weed” that can yield a cup of grain from a single plant.

One of the most interesting “new” summer cereals that any
farmer or gardener has experimented with recently comes
from a gigantic Technicolor “weed” called grain amaranth.
Although it has been cultivated for centuries by the
Indios of Mexico, amaranth remained largely
unknown in this country until a few years ago. Yet this
fascinating plant (a member of the same family as the
tumbleweed and the lovelies-bleeding) produces as high a
yield — acre for acre — as a well-favored
wheatfield, bears grain with a protein content of 18%
(double corn’s 9% ), can thrive and produce a crop on soil
too dry for corn to even grow on, is so hardy it requires
little care, and is seldom bothered by insects.

Our homestead is in southern New Mexico, and I’ve always
considered corn to be my standard summer grain. When
Organic Gardening and Farming began to take a
strong interest in Amaranthushypochondriacus a couple of years ago, however, my
curiosity was aroused. I’ve been experimenting with
amaranth ever since . . . sometimes with surprising
results.

At first I was skeptical about the whole idea: “I’m
perfectly satisfied with corn,” I thought, “so why do I
need amaranth?” But by the time my first crop of the new
grain had reached maturity, 1 was already beginning to
appreciate a couple of its most important advantages: [1]
Amaranth will bear seeds no matter how dry the season (the
drier the weather, the smaller the yield, of course) . . .
whereas corn must have a certain minimum amount of water
before it will produce ears. [2] While corn attracts borers
and ear worms like a magnet, amaranth just doesn’t seem to
interest insects at all. (For these two reasons alone,
amaranth may turn into a valuable supplemental grain crop
in many parts of the country.)

If my experiences are an indication, you shouldn’t have any
trouble growing a test patch of this amazing new plant. Be
warned, however, that mature amaranth stands six to nine
feet tall . . . so sow it on the north end of your garden
where it won’t shade out smaller crops. And, since the
nine-foot giants can be blown down by a strong wind, try to
locate them next to a fence that will support their stems.

Sow amaranth seeds in the spring — about corn-planting
time — in the kind of soil that weeds like best: rich, moist,
and sunny. The seeds are tiny — approximately the size
of pinheads — so don’t bury them too deep . . . 1/8 inch is
about right. Then, since they’ll be in the topmost layer of
soil — which is quickly dried out by the sun—keep
your amaranth plot moist (sprinkle it, or cover it with
burlap, or do both) until the seeds have sprouted. (The
almost-invisible shoots will peek out in about a week and,
at first, you’ll only be able to see them if you
get down on your hands and knees. Later on, however, the
amaranths will develop into miniature “trees” that
tower overhead.)

As soon as the young’ uns start crowding each other, thin
them out to one plant every one or two feet. (Organic
Gardening
says the thinnings are edible, but our
family finds them too bitter. Our goats, on the other hand,
love ’em.) Keep the weeds down (the OTHER weeds) until the
amaranths are about 12 inches tall. After that, the competition
won’t stand a chance.

If your plants get plenty of water, they should grow a very
noticeable inch a day until midsummer. Then they’ll put
forth large, feathery yellow and purple flower heads . . .
and the neighbors will start to ask, “What in tarnation are
those things?” (Full-grown amaranths are
spectacular enough to serve as excellent backdrops for
flower gardens.)

As the weeks go by, the heads of the amaranth plants will
start to sag with the weight of their nutritious cargo.
They’ll be ready to pick in late summer or early fall and
here’s how to check them for ripeness: Go out on a dry
afternoon and rub part of a seed head between your fingers.
If some of the pellets fall into your hand, the plants are
ready for harvest.

The best time to reap amaranth is early in the morning,
when everything is soaked with dew and the wet seeds won’t
scatter. Wear gloves (to avoid the prickles), and chop off
your giants’ heads with a machete. If you gather only a
few, cut them up and spread ’em out on newspapers to dry in
the sun for three or four days. If you have a lot of heads,
though, you’ll do better to slice and dry them on a long
plastic sheet inside a hot attic or shed (that way you
won’t panic whenever a cumulus cloud moves toward the
homestead).

When the pieces of seed head are completely dry, you can
thresh them. Because my amaranth operation is still a
relatively small one, I handle the job by simply shoving
all our dried amaranth heads through a wire-mesh screen (to
break them up and knock the seeds loose). If you have a
large crop, you may want to throw all the pieces down on a
clean floor . . . and then dance a jig on ’em, or flail them
to bits with a large stick.

Winnowing the seeds from the chaff is always a lot of fun.
First I clean all the dirt or manure or whatever out of my
trusty old wheelbarrow. Then I load the barrow with buckets
of broken-up seed heads and trundle ’em off to “just the
right” spot. (Winnowing is best done out in the open in a
steady light breeze . . . any stronger wind will blow the
tiny seeds away.) When I’ve found exactly the conditions I
want, 1 grab a handful of the pulverized mixture, hold it
about shoulder-high, and slowly release it. The lighter
chaff is blown away, while the heavier seeds fall down into
the wheelbarrow . . . an elegant and totally satisfying
process when everything is working right.

(Of course, the wind doesn’t always cooperate. In
fact, if you ever need to put up aluminum siding, or work
on a windmill, or do any other job that would be far easier
accomplished in a dead calm, try this: FIRST, start
winnowing. Even a freshening breeze will die away
— guaranteed! — the instant the first handful of
mixture leaves a bucket. THEN you can amble over and put up
the siding. That’s on the good days. On the bad ones the
wind won’t quite drop to zero . . . but will keep
blowing just enough to sucker you into starting
your seed sorting. Then it’ll quickly whip around and blow
a mouthful of chaff into your face!)

When the wind and I have finally reached enough of a
Mexican standoff to actually winnow my grain — and
there’s nothing left in the wheelbarrow but amaranth
seeds — I pour the harvest into jars, store the
containers away in a cool and dry place, comb the chaff out
of my hair, and get ready for some good eating.

We grind the seeds into flour with our grain mill. The
flavor of the cereal is mild enough for you to make whole
amaranth bread, if you want, but we usually mix our
Amaranthushypochondriacus flour with an
equal amount of wheat flour. The amaranth adds a wholesome
“earthy” tang . . and my wife Judy says that the resulting
bread tastes like high-class wheat-crackers (without the
crunch). However you choose to describe it, I’m sure you’ll
agree that this easy-to-grow, nourishing, protein-rich, and
somewhat unusual grain is good!

Amaranth is still scarce in this country, and the big seed
companies probably won’t be offering it for a few more
years. So, if you want to grow the grain but can’t find any
seeds anywhere else, send a dollar and a self-addressed,
stamped envelope to: Gordon Solberg, Box 23, Radium
Springs, N.M. 88054. I’ll mail you about 200 of the little
buggers.

After that you’re on your own . . . ’cause if you can get
even one plant to grow, you’ll have enough seeds for a
lifetime. Which is probably about how long you’ll be
growing amaranth, too, since this completely awe-inspiring
plant yields such a delicious, nutritious crop . . . that,
once you try it, you’ll never want to be without it!