The Mighty Amaranth

I probably read too many library books, but in the last two years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the idea of small-scale grain cultivation. I won’t pretend that I could grow enough wheat to keep my family in pizzas for a year, but I do think it would be nice if we could produce more of our dietary staples. Additionally, we have chickens now. We let them free-range for food and we feed them a Washington-grown, all-natural, locally-milled, mostly organic chicken feed, but I like to think that with a little practice, I could grow some of their food myself. So I decided to practice growing grain.

Back in the day: Baby amaranth seed head.

We live in the city on a big-for-a-city-but-not-a-farm-sized lot, so I started looking for grains that are easy to thresh manually and have a high yield in a small space. Stuck between quinoa & amaranth, I decided on amaranth for our 2011 garden for the following reasons:
1. It makes beautiful flowers.
2. I got more google results for “western washington”+”amaranth cultivation” than quinoa. Yes, I make gardening decisions by the whim of Google’s hive mind. It’s a big experiment anyway.

What do I know about amaranth? Not that much. It’s a gluten-free psuedo-grain, native to the Americas. It’s grown in many cultures for edible seed, stems, leaves & roots as well as ornamental purposes. They sell it at my local food co-op. I don’t know that I have ever cooked with it. That’s the extent of my amaranth knowledge. I like the unknown.

Hartman’s Giant amaranth propped up by a ginormous Jerusalem artichoke plant.

With that settled, I hopped over the Baker Creek to check out their Amaranth collection. (By the way – Baker Creek is awesome. Especially if you’re a plant nerd.) I picked the Golden Giant Amaranth for its alleged heavy yield ( up to 1 lb of white seed per plant) and the Hartman’s Giant Amaranth because it was developed in Oregon. If you decide to grow amaranth, make sure you get a variety that has been cultivated for seed production.

The seeds are unbelievably small. I had a hard time believing they would grow to 7′ or 10′ tall, but they did. I planted a little later than I’d planned due to some complications with the weeds at our community garden plot, but the amaranth seemed to enjoy our summer weather. It has been a delight to have amaranth in our garden. It is an exceptionally lovely plant and brings a lot of joy to my fall garden under the grim, gray PNW autumn. I already decided to grow it again next year. I’ve learned a lot this season: amaranth can withstand a lot of heat and dry weather without much water. I barely watered these plants once they were established because they’re far away from a hose. They are also top heavy once the seeds start developing; about 1/3 of my plants have toppled over. I need to stake them next year. When I thin the plants, the chickens are very happy to annihilate the thinnings for me.

We’ve yet to bring the crop to harvest, but I am tentatively hopeful that we will produce a yield. I’ve read that you should harvest the seed heads after the first frost. I’m not sure if that’s accurate in my climate, but I didn’t find any better information. So, hopefully you’ll see some lovely amaranth recipes here in the coming months.

Do you have experience growing grain or any amaranth recipes you can’t live without? Or do you have any advice about growing quinoa? We’re going to do that next year, too.



Filed under garden, urban farming

13 responses to “The Mighty Amaranth

  1. Hey! I will trade you some burgundy amaranth seeds for ground cherries if you want!
    We are going to do some rye and buckwheat winter ground cover this year after getting all inspired at Mother Earth News (also too, rebby can use some of it in beer making) I failed at saving my amaranth seeds last year but I had three big plants spring up from last year’s left over salad mix, so I saved them. Not enough to cook with yet, but I am determined to plant as much as possible next spring. Ongoing experiment.
    I haven’t cooked with amaranth a ton but I feel like it can be a little bitter so is best used in breakfasty or baked things with a little sweetness. My favorite alternative grain is millet but I think it might be too cold to grow in Pgh….I might try it though.
    Growing grains for your chickens is very noble. Please post pictures of them…haven’t seen them in a while!

    • That sounds like a good trade! Send me your address: skirtmuseum at gmail ? I read that you can pop amaranth like popcorn and use it as a breakfast cereal — like rice crispies, but made with amaranth, which is part of my interest in it… again, I’ve yet to harvest anything, but if we make it to harvest, I think we’re going to have a few pounds of it.

      It seems like the chickens get half of what we grow — everything overripe, ugly, bug-ridden, they are very pleased to fuss over it.

  2. Funny thing about amaranth, it grows so well that here we weed it OUT of our garden! We do buy it as a grain but people don’t cook with it much. Every time I’ve had it, it’s been as a gelatinous sort of mush, often with dried fruits and nuts mixed in. Inoffensive and pretty bland, so you could do a lot with seasonings.

    • Some of the worst weeds we have are part of the amaranth family, but I would be pleased if the giant seed-bearing amaranth started volunteering all over my garden. They are so pretty!

      I read a lot about people who pop amaranth like popcorn and use it as a breakfast cereal — like rice crispies, but made with amaranth. We eat a lot of cereal in this house, so I am considering that option. There’s a time and place for gelatinous mush, but I’m not sure if it’s terribly exciting.

  3. Hillary

    I’ve never grown it on purpose, but the chickens do love their pigweed!

  4. lovely photos, I think Amaranth is very photogenic. I grew it last year, and I just left it as I loved looking at it so much! The leaves were sort of transparent and looked stunning when the sun was shining. Hope you manage to get a crop
    …also a fan of Baker Creek, they do some fabulous lettuce and squash seeds :)) ….

  5. Ray

    That is a beautiful plant. Thanks for the pictures.

  6. caitlin

    My farmers say that an easy grain for anyone to grow and feed themselves with is amaranth. We had it in a garden by accident a few years ago and it was pretty, but I didn’t harvest any. but, whenever I stay at the farm I get veggies from, they make it for me for breakfast. I’m pretty into it though at first I didn’t like how small the grain was in my mouth (so much smaller than quinoa). I am going to try to grow it. Probably the only thing that will grow in my yard that is edible.

    • I read several times that it was one of the easiest grains to grow and thresh. I admit that was a big part of my decision-making process. It’s drying in my garage right now. I thought about buying some from the co-op to figure out how to cook it before I use my precious home-grown stuff, but I haven’t taken the leap yet. Which farm do you get veggies from?

      • SandyB

        I have grown amaranth for years, you must stake them like sunflowers, and cover the seedheads with pantyhose before they mature or the birds will pick them clean. I find the best way to eat is to make flour for bread.
        Good luck!

  7. I planted a short row of seeds from Baker and had much the same luck,tall plants that got very top heavy. I harvested the heads that managed to stay out of the dirt by cutting them with pruners. I let them dry in the garage until spring, when I needed the tub they were in for my spring seedlings. To thresh I used my hands (with leather gloves). The seeds are tiny, like poppy seeds. I winnowed them with a box fan, it took a couple of hours, not much fun. My single seed packet yielded about 1 lb of harvested seed. I would guess chickens would eat the seeds right off the seed heads. Are there any backyard scale machines to help with seed harvest / cleaning? I couldn’t imagine doing much more volume without some sort of machine help

  8. Here in tropical Australia I grew some chia last year and then found the seeds very hard to separate. I grow the small red amaranth as a salad green – I will be interested to see if the grains are easy to harvest.

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