Growing and Harvesting Amaranth
Can you believe I started writing this article in July and it’s getting close to the end of September…
If I’m being honest I started writing this as soon as I planted the first seed 3 years ago and it came out the ground bright purple, red. I was mesmerized by the plant and knew nothing about it. I’ve spent the last 3 growing seasons truly getting to know this plant and falling deeper in love.
That’s just how it is with growing plants, everything takes a long time, but honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Slowing down back to the speed we are supposed to be is good for everyone. The speed of plants is just right.
Amaranth has been one of the easiest plants to grow, it seeds itself (if you like that sort of thing) and will pop up in almost any sunny patch of the garden. In fact in many areas these plants are considered weeds, but here in Mexico the Aztecs were cultivating Amaranth as long as 8000 years ago. The loved and cherished the grain, including it in festivals and events. For good reason, it’s highly nutritious and lovely to grow. Also sprout some yourself and tell me you feel no joy seeing that tiny red plant, it’s full of goodness.
As I said, I didn’t know much about the plant when I started so let’s start with an introduction before we get to work.
What is amaranth
It’s an ancient gluten free grain packed with protein and contains 18 amino acids, as well as good quantities of magnesium and iron (apparently twice the amount of quinoa). It’s also the only grain we know of that has a little bit of vitamin C.
One of my favorite nutrition quotes about amaranth comes from the 2012 Journal of food science where they said, “because it’s protein content and its amino acid composition are somewhere in between those of a cereal and a bean it could be nutritionally considered as a natural mixture of rice and beans.” As a vegan I’ve heard over and over about getting your complete proteins and here’s Amaranth as old (if not older) than the Americas ready and willing to keep people healthy.
Amaranth as a Pest Control
One of the little known ways to use amaranth, is actually to not. This plant is a great pest control because it attracts them away from your more delicate vegetables. Pests will gorge on the leaves and flowers and if you are very lucky and have enough amaranth they won’t touch the other garden goodies. With its bright color it also attracts pollinators that are good for pumpkins and other plants.
When to plant
I plant a lot of amaranth every year in June with my MILPA because it doesn’t seem to be bothered by the tropical rain storms and I usually get self seeders from that popping up again in the Fall and I leave any volunteers that aren’t bothering other plants. The good news is, you can seed a plant or whole bed of amaranth anytime of year in the Yucatan depending on your space and desire.
When to harvest
I usually grow Amaranth for its seed.
It takes about 100 days from first germination to seed harvest
(but at 80-90 days I start to check them daily.)
Here’s the fun part though, knowing when it’s ready. Once some of the leaves start turning color or the head is browning a bit you should check your amaranth EVERY SINGLE DAY. (The photos above are example of browning or changes in color meaning the seeds are nearly ready.) I’m not exaggerating, it can go from not ready, to ready in a matter of hours so make sure you check it often.
HOW? You check amaranth heads by rubbing the flower gently in your fingertips. Small seeds will easily drop from the flower head if it is ready. If you rub and a small piece of flower falls off BUT no seeds then your plant is not ready yet. Keep checking.
Once it is ready. Cut the heads and lay them on a flat cardboard, plastic tray or sheet. You may want to shake them for bugs, but don’t shake out all the seeds. I usually leave them 24 hours to dry a bit more. This isn’t necessary but I found it helps remove the outer fluff a bit easier.
First hand separate from the stem, rub between your fingers and then winnow the chaff.
Wait, what? What language was that?
Oh, sorry. That was garden language.
The chaff is the extra plant bit (flower) around the seed, and to winnow is to separate the two. There are lots of methods for winnowing including with fans, bowls and strainers. The only one I don’t suggest in this case is a fan because the amaranth seeds are so light and small they can easily blow away. Bowl to bowl also takes a lot of time, I don’t use it very often.
How I separate the seeds
The first thing I do is use a strainer from the beginning. You have to remove the plant material from the stems and will want to rub everything through your fingers to release the small seeds. I find a strainer helps me keep out the larger material while the seeds can fall through.
After I’ve separated all the plant material I can with my hands, I start to winnow with my own breath. I usually use a bowl and cover my face and with light puffs of breath blow out the rest of the plant chaff. The seeds stay towards the bottom but if you puff too hard they will blow up the sides of the bowl too. Once the seeds are clear of plant material you can store them or mill them into flour. I usually store the seeds for 2 days in the freezer to kill any possible bugs and then use them in recipes.
*Next time I harvest a set I promise to take a video to help teach you this process 🙁 sorry I didn’t get a good one this season. Too much rain and other world things going on. You know 2020, what a ride.
Using the leaves
Young amaranth leaves are sweet and good as salad greens.
As they age they start to get bitter and less good for eating.
Older leaves make great mulch and after harvesting the heads you can chop and drop the rest of the plant into the bed it grew from.
Amaranth as Food (some ideas)
The grain can be ground raw into flour, cooked like rice, or popped and eaten as a topping, snack, ingredient.
Amaranth works great in:
Salad add on
Topping over fruit or other desserts
Gluten free baking (flour sub)