If you sat down with the average farmer or homesteader and asked them to name which crops to plant for survival, they typical answers are likely to be tomatoes, potatoes, or maybe the three sisters… corn, squash, and beans. Those are all valuable crops! But, there’s another food that many should know about in their quest for self-sufficiency. Believe it or not, amaranth is one of the easiest and nutritious plants you can grow. And, as an added bonus, it’s one of the most beautiful plants on the planet!
What is Amaranth?
The amaranth plant can grow to be as tall as a human, and it grows in a wide variety of shapes and colors. Best of all, it can provide year-round food. In the early summertime, the tender, young greens are a delicious addition to salads, and they have a flavor very similar to spinach.
As the leaves get larger, they are delicious when served as a steamed green, or used in soups. In the summer’s heat, the plants will mature into a magnificent garden display. As the seed heads become fully mature in the fall, each seed head will produce many ounces of nutritious seed that have a nutty, rich taste.
The seeds contain more protein than most other whole grains, and they also contain several essential amino acids, especially lysine. Lysine is rarely found in plant foods, and it is an essential nutrient that humans require for protein synthesis.
Combining amaranth with other whole grains boosts the nutrient value even more. Calcium, iron, fiber, and phosphorous are also found in amaranth sees. And the leaves have their own nutritional value, including protein, beta carotene, fiber, calcium, and iron. If all of that weren’t enough, the plant itself requires very little water and grows happily in most soils. It’s no wonder that it’s known by many as a superfood!
How to Grow Your Own Superfood
Growing amaranth is an excellent choice for the small farmer. The plant thrives in warm weather, but it has been successfully grown in areas with short growing seasons, like Maine and Canada. It should be sown in the spring after the soil has become warm, right around the same time you would sow corn. You’ll need to prepare a fine seedbed to accommodate the tiny seeds. A plot as small as one hundred square feet will produce a few pounds of seed.
You can improve your yield by amending the soil with well-rotted manure or compost. The seeds should be spaced about an inch apart, and ¼” deep in rows that are about a foot apart. The seedbed should be kept moist until germination occurs. A thin layer of mulch can be applied after the plants emerge to help retain moisture. Once the plants are well established, a thicker mulch can be applied, and you may not have to water at all.
As your plants grow, you can thin them out and use the thinnings as salad greens. In the end, you’ll want to have one plant per square foot for a grain crop. You should stay on top of the weeding while the plants are small because amaranth can be slow to get established, but once they get going, they should out-compete most weeds.
Plants that are sown in spring should be two to four feet tall by midsummer, depending on the variety. As the seed heads form, the plants will create a breathtaking display in the garden that will last until the first frost. If you wish, you can thin your plants again in midsummer by cutting the beautiful heads or side shoots to use in floral bouquets.
Gathering and Processing Your Grain
Your amaranth patch will probably be towering over your head by the first frost. There are several ways to harvest and clean your crop. You must be aware that the seeds will mature at different times, and some of the bottom ways may shatter before the ones on top are ripe. To harvest the early ripening seeds, shake the seed heads into a bag or container, then wait for the rest of the seeds to ripen before your final harvest.
Most growers will wait until after the first frost to harvest the seeds. By then most of them will be mature, and the plants will be starting to die back. Simply cut the seed heads of the plant and lay them on a clean sheet or tarp to dry. Never let them get wet from rain or dew, or they will begin to mold and be wasted. If you have a good spot in a covered building, you can also hang them to dry with a tarp underneath them to catch any seeds that fall.
Either way, the seeds will continue maturing until they become completely dry. Once the heads are completely dry, it’s time to clean the seeds. The easiest way to get started is to place the brittle plant heads in a large tub, in between two tarps. Wearing clean shoes, crush the brittle plants with your feet. Once all the plants are crushed, you can use a ¼” screen to separate out the larger debris and continue breaking down the chaff. Follow up with a finer screen to remove even more of the chaff.
To get your seed clean enough for use, pour the seeds between two bowls on a breezy day. The bottom bowl will catch the seed as the chaff blows away in the wind. This method works well with a small harvest, but there are other ways to clean the seed, so don’t hesitate to experiment and do your own research. The clean, dry seeds can be stored in canning jars for use throughout the winter.
How to Cook with Amaranth
As we already mentioned, the greens can be used in a variety of ways throughout the growing process, but what do you do with the seeds? Well, many folks use it as a hot breakfast cereal, similar to cream of wheat. It can also be used for baking by grinding it into flour. Simply replace ¼ of the wheat flour required for the recipe with your amaranth flour. It can also be added to soups and works as a thickening agent.
You really can’t find a more multi-use plant. When you plan your garden this spring, why not try a small patch of amaranth? You just might be surprised at how useful this tasty plant can be!