Amaranth, (Amaranthus spp.) is primarily considered a grain crop because of the small, nutty-flavored seeds it produces—it’s a close cousin to quinoa. But amaranth’s productive potential extends well beyond the grain it bears. This ancient plant is covered in edible, nutritious foliage with a flavor similar to spinach.
Amaranth greens can be harvested young and added to salad mixes and sandwiches, while larger leaves and shoots are perfect for steaming, braising or sautéing. You can use amaranth in any recipe that calls for spinach. To grow these beautiful and nutritious greens, follow these simple steps.
Preparing to Plant
Select a site that receives a minimum of six to eight hours of full sun.
Amend the soil with compost or aged horse or cow manure. Because amaranth grown as a green requires more nitrogen than amaranth grown as a grain, you can also add a few sparse handfuls of bloodmeal or cottonseed meal to the planting area as a natural nitrogen source, but don’t go overboard, as too much nitrogen can cause thin, floppy growth.
Purchase seeds of a variety of amaranth bred specifically for greens production. My favorites include Burgundy with gorgeous red shoots; Green Calaloo with bright-green foliage; Red Leaf Stripe with red and green variegated foliage; Tricolor with red, burgundy and green foliage; and Tender Leaf, a dwarf variety.
Because amaranth germinates best at soil temperatures around 68 degrees F, it’s best to wait until mid- to late-spring to plant. The crop is also intolerant of frosts, so wait until well after the danger of frost has passed.
The seeds of amaranth are extremely small. When sowing, consider mixing them with coarse-grained sand to help disperse them evenly. Distribute the seeds sparingly across the surface of a finely tilled planting bed and lightly rake them in. There’s no need to plant in rows or trenches, as the greens will be harvested well before the plants reach maturity.
Water the seeds in and continue to supply them with an inch of water per week during times of drought. Although amaranth is fairly drought-tolerant, even moisture levels lead to better production.
The seeds will sprout in seven to 14 days. Tiny sprouts with their first pair of true leaves can be harvested a few days later and used as micro-greens. But for greater production, allow the plants to reach 1 to 2 feet tall before harvesting.
To harvest young amaranth greens, cut off the entire plant a few inches above ground level. Often the plant will re-sprout and produce a second and even third, crop of greens. Amaranth is a heat-tolerant crop so, using this method, it’s possible to have fresh greens produced all summer long. If plants grow faster than the shoots can be used, you can allow some to continue to grow and flower. You can also harvest stalks from these more mature plants, but the leaves will have to be cooked well and the stems will have to be peeled. Young shoots are more tender.
To keep amaranth fresh until use in the kitchen or to sell fresh amaranth greens at market, gather the cut stalks into bunches and store them in upright containers filled with an inch or two of water. The shoots will stay fresh for five to seven days, more if the foliage is occasionally misted with water to keep it from drying out. Glass mason jars make great market displays, and signage will help customers understand how to use the delicious greens in their own kitchen. Providing recipes is sure to help, as well.
Mature amaranth plants produce beautiful spires or cascades of flowers, and depending on the variety, they may reach 5 to 6 feet tall. Allow a few plants to come into flower every year. They will drop seed and your amaranth crop will continue the following season. Be careful, though, as a single plant can produce up to 100,000 seeds! Selectively thin the flower heads before seed drop to prevent an overwhelming number of seedlings the following spring.
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About the Author: Horticulturalist Jessica Walliser is the author of Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control (Timber Press, 2013) and co-host of Pittsburgh’s top-rated gardening radio program, The Organic Gardeners, on KDKA Radio. Learn more helpful gardening tips in her blog, “Dirt on Gardening.”