Longtime Maine farmer and homesteader Will Bonsall shares his knowledge and experience with various broadleaf grains.
In Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), author Will Bonsall maintains that to achieve real wealth we first need to understand the economy of the land, to realize that things that might make sense economically don't always make sense ecologically, and vice versa. The marketplace distorts our values, and our modern dependence on petroleum in particular presents a serious barrier to creating a truly sustainable agriculture. Bonsall draws upon the fertility of on-farm plant materials: compost, green manures, perennial grasses, and forest products like leaves and ramial wood chips. And he grows and harvests a diversity of crops from both cultivated and perennial plants: vegetables, grains, pulses, oilseeds, fruits and nuts ― even uncommon but useful permaculture plants like groundnut. In a friendly, almost conversational way, Bonsall imparts a wealth of knowledge drawn from his more than forty years of farming experience.
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There are a few grains, notably buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa, that agronomists classify as pseudo-grains. This seems annoyingly dismissive to me; of course they are grains, we call them grains, we prepare and use them as grains. What scientists mean is that these grains are not grasses; they do not belong to the family Poaceae. Well, quack grass is a member of the Poaceae, and so is bamboo, but who calls those grains? Still, there is an important distinction: The genuine honest-to-goodness, right-out-front dyed-in-the-wool card-carrying real-McCoy grains (which I’ll henceforth call “grassy grains” for clarity) are all monocots, which have a very different worldview from the fake, fraudulent, bogus, ersatz, sham pseudo-grains, which I’ll henceforth refer to as “broadleaf grains.”
All the grassy grains make their new growth from the base of the plant. That new growth emerges directly from the crown, whereas the broadleaf grains just keep adding new growth onto older growth. Consequently if you, or a grazing animal, snip off the top of a wheat plant, it will just keep growing, as in a lawn; do that to a field of buckwheat and it will stop dead, as in a parking lot, or at most branch out and grow bushy.
And then there’s the ability of grassy grains to “eat the rocks” and convert the dissolved silica into a protective coating. It’s a trick that most dicots aren’t so good at; they rely more on taking up the already soluble silica in the soil humus. Moreover grazing animals then use that soluble silica to make their otherwise chalky teeth strong and sharp so they can chomp at that grass; it doesn’t seem quite fair.
One of the helpful things about the broadleaf grains is that they lack gluten, which apparently is strictly a grass thing (and not all of those). By “helpful,” I mean of course to people who are gluten-sensitive, like celiacs; to the rest of us it’s a flaw, in that we cannot make bread from them. But isn’t that seeing the glass half empty? I mean, might as well say that wheat is flawed because it’s too sticky to make a nice light cereal like kasha.
The seeds of broadleaf grains contain complete proteins, whereas all grassy grains are low in the amino acid lysine (which is why it is good to combine them with legumes to make a balanced diet).
No, buckwheat is not related to wheat, any more than a seahorse is related to a horse. Rather it is in the Polygonaceae, along with rhubarb, sorrel, knotweed, and smartweed. The buck part is believed to come from an old Dutch translation boec-weite, which actually means “beech-wheat,” referring to buckwheat’s strong resemblance to beechnuts. In fact the words for “buckwheat” in different languages tell much about its story.
You see, buckwheat originated in East and Central Asia. The common type is called Japanese buckwheat. The other is called tartary buckwheat, but it actually hails from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. According to one story buckwheat arrived in Europe in the wake of the Ottoman Turk expansion in the 13th century (unless it was brought back still earlier by returning Crusaders). In any case it was associated with Islam, which Western Europeans equated with the Saracens. Therefore, the French named it ble de Sarazin, Saracen wheat, which name persists to this day. In German-speaking regions it was called either buchweizen or heidenweizen, meaning “heathen wheat” (an epithet the Muslims likewise bestowed on Christians). The humble grain is a tactless reminder that Eastern Europe has often been a fracture zone for conflicting views. Likewise the name Tartary buckwheat reflects its hostile Asiatic heritage.
Another story is that it was introduced into western Russia by Byzantine Greeks in the 7th century, which would comport nicely with reported archaeological finds in the Balkans of buckwheat being cultivated at least 4000 BCE.
I want to point out that it’s very frost-tender but matures in a very short season. Unlike grass grains, which ripen all at once, buckwheat plants bear seed in all stages of development — from flowering to overripe and shattering — simultaneously. This raises the question of when to harvest it. The Acadian buckwheat farmers of the St. Johns Valley between Maine and New Brunswick sow buckwheat in early July. It is still making late blossoms when the first frost shuts it down in September. The freeze-killed blossoms quickly turn dry and crumbly; when the crop is reaped the dried stems and leaves are simply winnowed off, with a minimum loss of ripe seed. The Acadians use the roller-milled flour (it is the tartary type) exclusively to make traditional all-buckwheat griddle cakes called “ployes.” This is a curious example of an heirloom variety being grown on thousands of acres and sold in area supermarkets by the 10-pound (4.5 kg) bag.
I don’t know how buckwheat was reaped before the days of grain combines. It would be difficult to put into sheaves and stooks without shattering, plus there would be little point to it, as the seed is pretty much dried when it’s cut. Lacking machinery I simply cut mine with a grain sickle and toss it onto a 9×12-foot (2.7–3.7 m) tarp, which I then drag to the threshing floor. (I never grow more than a bushel or two of seed.) It is incredibly easy to thresh; indeed if you cut it in the cool morning or evening, it will shatter less and dry on the tarp in the waxing sun. If you look at it cross-eyed it will be half done, a few blows of the flail will finish it off nicely. I often spread my clean grain on screen racks under cover for a few days, in case of any residual moisture that might cause mould.
Of course the hulls, or seed coats, are still on (there are no hull-less buckwheats); removing those is the main obstacle to using homegrown buckwheat.
Buckwheat is not just outrageously tasty; “they say” it is also extremely nutritious, although I have doubts that anything so flavoursome can be good for you. It does not contain gluten but has plenty of selenium, an essential trace mineral that doesn’t turn up just anywhere. And it has a full complement of amino acids, making for a balanced protein source.
No less in its favour in my garden-without-borders perspective is how it makes all those goodies and at what cost to the immediate and wider environment. For example, the phosphorus with which buckwheat is so replete is not necessarily from added (imported) sources; buckwheat has the exceptional talent of extracting phosphorus from inorganic minerals in the soil, such as apatite (yes, you might truly say said it has “an appetite for apatite”). In other words it can “eat the rocks.” This mineral-dissolving trick is something we expect from lichens, but higher plants are generally much less adept at it.
In Facts for Farmers, Solon Robinson cites one farm where buckwheat was grown continuously for 17 years, with no fertilization of any kind being added. Indeed a crop of buckwheat grain was taken off and sold every year, only the straw and stubble being returned to the soil that produced it. Instead of wearing out the soil that residue alone built up the tilth year after year until eventually the farm was sold and the new owners immediately planted it to oats, corn, and potatoes (the latter two very heavy feeders), harvesting fair crops without adding any other form of fertilizer. Now, there’s an example of eco-efficiency.
When sowing buckwheat I make a distinction between buckwheat sown for green manure and that sown for food crop. If I want to smother weeds and build a maximum of humus, then I will broadcast it at a rate calibrated to leave no bare or thin spots. That rate could result in reduced seed yield, but I don’t intend to have any seed yield anyway, since I will turn it all under in the flower stage, growing the seed for it on a separate plot. For a food crop I drill the seed at a density comparable to wheat, encouraging each plant to grow robustly and form branches. I never dream of companioning buckwheat with any other crop for the same reason it makes such a good cover crop: It just doesn’t get along with anything else.
I first tried experimenting with amaranth back in the 1970s when Rodale Press (publishers of Organic Gardening magazine) ran a big readership-based project to trial and promote various varieties of the then-novelty grain. Knowing of its Central American origin I had some doubts, which seemed justified when the variety they selected for me failed to mature. I realized I had probably not done enough follow-through, but I also knew that its close cousin, red-root pigweed, had no trouble whatever here. So many years later, when Cousin Tom showed me some big beautiful plants he had matured, named Opopeo, my interest was piqued again, although the fact that Opopeo is a town in Michoacan, Mexico, wasn’t too confidence inspiring. I tried it and was quite successful; since then I’ve tried other varieties with varying success, but I can always count on Opopeo.
Direct-seeding would probably be reliable, but I no longer do that, for three reasons: In its seedling stage amaranth is nigh impossible to distinguish from the pigweed, which I value for greens but want to pull long before it goes to seed. Also, by planting earlier and thus lengthening the season, I believe I harvest an even greater quantity of ripe seed. Remember, the broadleaf grains don’t ripen all at once like the grasses, nor are mine usually senescing (calling it quits) by the first killing frost, so why not just keep cranking along?
The most important reason for pre-starting amaranth has to do with my intercropping system. You see, Opopeo has bodacious stalks over 7 feet (2.1 m) high; I do believe some would grade out for veneer logs, but the very skimpiest would serve nicely as support for pole beans, much as sunflowers do. Indeed the sunflower analogy goes further: Both sunflowers and amaranth are fairly frost-hardy, amaranth not so much, but far more than the pole beans. Therefore I can plant both support crops well in advance. Rather I must plant it earlier; if I do not give them a two- or three-week head start, the leggy beans will quickly outgrow them and then have no place to go. Amaranth in particular is such a pathetic threadlike wimp of a seedling, it seems to take forever to get established. But when it finally does take off it makes explosive growth, so much so that if the beans get too late a start, they’ll suffer from the amaranth’s shade. Amaranth tends to branch much more than sunflowers, which is fine with me, as the bean vines have more to cling to. Branching is encouraged by wider spacing, so rather than plant them one per foot (0.3 m) or three plants per 3 feet (0.9 m) like sunflowers — I often give them 2 feet (0.6 m) in the row (and 3 feet between rows). I typically grow four to six 40-foot (12.2 m) rows.
I’ve trialed some shorter varieties that are somewhat earlier, like Plainsman, but they are not as well suited for my particular system. At about 3 feet (0.9 m) in height they’re bred for mechanical harvesting by combine. I must harvest my giant Opopeo by hand, which I’m going to do anyway, so why shouldn’t I also get a second crop, the pole beans? I can’t do that with the short industrial varieties.
I should point out that there are two types of amaranth bred for two separate uses: grain and greens. Although you could use either type for either purpose, it’s not worth it. The greens varieties have black seed (like wild pigweed) and a strong flavour and tend to be late; the leaves of the grain types are totally edible, but I’m loath to reduce the plants’ leaf area that is feeding the grain.
I don’t pay undue attention to soil nitrogen for amaranth, as I must with corn. I rather strive for a high humus level and good drainage, which they really appreciate.
The first frost seems to check any further growth of the plant — it usually has stopped its upward growth by then to focus on ripening its seed — but doesn’t destroy the plant. The foliage keeps its composure through several heavy frosts before it begins to wilt in resignation. The seed is loaded with cold-resistant cell salts and continues to cure. When I feel it has suffered enough of such treatment, I harvest with a machete and hang it indoors. I used to lop off the whole plant, but since that massive stalk takes forever to dry, I rather cut it where it branches out, usually 2 feet (0.6 m) above the ground; if there are grain-laden branches below that, I lop them off separately. In the overhead beams of my shed I have nails every foot (0.3 m) or so, where I hang the amaranth stalks upside down, hooking onto the lowest crotch. There I leave them for as long as I can, sometimes until there is snow on the ground and I am forced indoors. After a few days of drying I can consolidate them on fewer nails without their moulding. That frees up some space, which is always at a premium at that season. When the plants are very dry I align them carefully on a tarp, even if I’m using the indoor threshing floor, because the tiny seeds get caught in cracks. I thresh the grain with my rough-shod feet, scuffing crosswise like a chicken scratching, turning the stalks occasionally.
Amaranth plants are said to be cross-fertile, which I do not doubt, so when I save several varieties in my Scatterseed Project, I isolate them by at least 220 yards (200 metres) to keep them pure. I’m not certain that is enough, because all the Chenopods (amaranth, quinoa, lamb’s-quarters, spinach, beets, et cetera) are wind-pollinated, and therefore have very fine pollen that is easily wafted; so far, however, I’ve seen no signs of mixing between Opopeo or Plainsman, which are very different in height. It is also claimed by some that the grain amaranth and red-root pigweed are cross-fertile; if so, I’ve seen no indication of it, no intermediate types or mixed variants, although they have ample opportunity to cross.
Looking at my first amaranth crop I was somewhat disappointed to see that, although the yield of biomass was impressive, the grain yield seemed much less than, say, wheat, although they are said to yield comparably. When I hefted the bucket of grain, however, I was far more impressed. It was like lead, and I had to conclude that such a dense grain must really be as nutrient-packed as they say. The rich flavour also does not belie that. Even without the accompanying pole bean crop, I consider the space very well used.
Amaranth can be cooked whole like rice or millet, yet is it is extremely unlike those in taste and texture. Indeed the gelatinous (read “gloppy”) texture of amaranth makes it rather unappealing by itself. Cooked separately and added to those lighter grains, the texture and flavour of both are improved.
We use amaranth mainly as flour, and that poses another problem. The seed is so tiny and hard, I must put it through the hand mill as much as four times to get it fine enough for me. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to do that. Then it can be used in corn bread recipes, although I prefer it in pancakes, waffles, or corn porridge/polenta.
The ancient Aztecs and others have made a special confection by popping amaranth in a hot clay pot and mixing it with honey or other sweetener. I’ve done that, using a cast-iron pot, and it certainly works, although it’s a bit of a trick to get it all popped before it scorches.
The first time I ever heard of quinoa (KEEN-wah) was from my sister-in-law Yolanda, who grew up in the mountains of Peru. There it is a staple food among the poor people (which is to say, everyone). At the higher elevations quinoa is one of the few crops that will mature, whereas rice, corn, and wheat must be imported from the lowlands at prohibitive expense. It is something of a paradox that the increased popularity of quinoa in the developed world as a trendy health food is threatening the food security of people in the Altiplano region who depend on it. So far 99 percent of the quinoa in the marketplace is imported from Peru and Bolivia, and the very people who produce it cannot compete with the purchasing power of the US dollar; they cannot afford to eat the very food they grow. Although US production in places such as Colorado is slowly ramping up, it is not keeping pace with the demand, which makes it all the more compelling that we gardeners should grow our own.
I loved the first bag of quinoa Yola sent me but assumed I could not grow it here; after all, Maine is a lot different from Peru. But it also occurred to me that the quinoa-producing areas were at high elevation where seasons were cool and relatively short; after all, they invented the potato. Yola’s hometown of Tarma is renowned for its carrots and even rutabagas, not exactly tropical crops. The main difference between our growing seasons is day length. At our latitude we have exceptionally short days in winter, but also exceptionally long days in summer, a phenomenon that folks living near the equator do not experience, nor their crops. Well, some quinoas (and some amaranths) are affected by day length and some are not, so it is all-important to plant a suitable variety, never mind the days-to-maturity. I’ve mainly grown Faro Red, which does all right, though I suspect I need to do a lot more trialing. My friend Mark Hutton is researching quinoa as a possible rotation crop for the potato growers of Maine’s Aroostook County. It seems the main obstacles are diamondback moths and leaf miners, the latter of which I have observed as a minor problem in my own crop. The wild lamb’s-quarters is a reservoir species for those pests, although the weed itself is not half as vulnerable to their damage as is the cultivated quinoa, surprise, surprise.
Quinoa doesn’t require high fertility; indeed it does best with fairly low nitrogen levels, although I don’t believe it objects to ample humus, and it does resent poor drainage and high acidity.
A not-so-helpful feature of quinoa is the coating of saponin that protects the grain from birds (that of course is helpful) but also makes it unpalatable to humans. If you insist on eating it unprocessed, the soapy stuff (what saponin means) will be very laxative. We’ve had a couple of generations now who have never tasted soap — presumably because their speech is more decorous than mine was — so take my word for it that you should first remove the saponin before cooking and eating quinoa. It’s not difficult; simply line a large strainer or colander with cloth and rinse-wash the grain well, rubbing it by hand and changing water until any sudsiness is gone. Since the coating may help protect the quinoa in storage, it may be wise not to wash the entire crop all at once, but in occasional batches as needed, and of course re-dry any that’s not for immediate use.
Quinoa can be direct-sown, but I prefer to start plants in two-inch cell trays and set them out when they’re at least 2 to 3 inches (5.1–7.6 cm) high. They’re very hardy, so you needn’t wait until last frost to set them out. I set out quinoa plants for the same reason as amaranth: to avoid confusion with wild weed seedlings, in this case lamb’s-quarters (nearly identical at this stage). As with amaranth I don’t rush to harvest them at first frost; they may be done growing but they continue to cure, perhaps even ripen a bit more on the plant. Birds are not a problem as they sometimes are with amaranth, partly because of the saponin coating. The quinoa I grow doesn’t exceed 3-1⁄2 feet (1.1 m) in height, so I don’t interplant it with pole beans as I do my amaranth. Semi-runner bean varieties might grow well among them, but I’m not sure quinoa is rugged enough to support other plants. However, because they’re so late to take off, I have grown quick early crops of lettuce and kohlrabi (both from transplants) in between them and they were out before the quinoa created much shade.
Quinoa is supposed to be “perfectly balanced” in everything, although some other skeptical killjoy naysayers claim there is a dearth of another amino acid: leucine. I am skeptical of the whole superfood concept, preferring to partake of as great a variety as possible in case some crucial nutrient (like maybe the element pandemonium) is missing from most of them. I’m often asked where I get protein in my diet, and I cannot give an authoritative answer, because as far as I know, I mostly eat stuff like cabbage and corn and beans and onions and wheat. If some of those have protein in them, well, I don’t mind. Curiously no one asks about the protein in the food I grew up eating, probably because they know it was perfectly balanced Maine milltown cuisine, based on the four major food groups: Velveeta, Spam, Miracle Whip, and Marshmallow Fluff. With such a solid nutritional background behind me, I figure it won’t hurt me to eat a little leucine-deficient quinoa once in a while.
One of the most popular ways of using quinoa in natural foods cuisine is in salads and for good reason. Its very rich flavour (I’m reminded of eggs, although I haven’t tasted those in 40-plus years) makes a bowl of crispy, crunchy raw veggies feel like an all-sufficient well-rounded meal. Just to give you some idea of how excellent quinoa is, the United Nations named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, and they never agree on anything! Maybe you think Peru has such clout in world affairs as to pull this off, but I gotta believe that quinoa sold itself.
By the way quinoa is said to have 14 percent protein, second only to legumes, if you want to believe in that kind of stuff.
Reprinted with permission from Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening by Will Bonsall and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015. Buy this book from our store:
Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening.