Growing Vegan Proteins, from Amaranth Plants to Pumpkin Seeds
How to Grow Quinoa, Beans, Nuts, and Seeds for Your Health
In the homesteading world, talk revolves around raising your own meat and eggs. But what if you’re vegan? You can still be self-sufficient and grow your own protein with amaranth plants, legumes, nuts, seeds and greens.
A protein is a collection of amino acids. Twenty exist that can form a protein and the body produces 11 of them. We still need the other nine, which are called essential amino acids, but we can’t make them ourselves. We must eat them. Complete proteins contain all nine.
The most common complete protein is meat. Dairy and eggs also contain all nine amino acids. Eschewing animal products doesn’t mean you won’t get these, for two reasons:
- You don’t need all amino acids at the same time, as long as you get enough of them all during the course of the day.
- While some plants are complete proteins, others make a complete protein when paired together. Many of these pairings are rooted deep in culture.
While omnivores may fret when their children become vegan, many dieticians believe the amino acids are so readily available that vegans are virtually guaranteed to consume them all as long as they concentrate on eating healthy foods.
One of the only plant-based foods which provide all essential amino acids, quinoa is increasingly popular among vegans and non-vegans. It’s delicious, extremely healthy and easily replaces gluten-rich foods like couscous within recipes. One cup of quinoa has eight grams of protein.
Pronounced KEEN-wah, this ancient grain comes from the same family as amaranth plants and the weed lamb’s quarter. Though they are called grains, they are seeds because quinoa and amaranth plants are broad-leaf crops and not grasses. Every part of the plant is edible. It originated in the Andes, specifically in the basin around Lake Titicaca, where it has been domesticated for human consumption for at least 5,000 years.
Several years ago, it was difficult to get quinoa seeds for cultivation. Lately, customers demand it. Quinoa can be purchased from companies specializing in heirloom seeds or ancient grains. Purchase cultivars such as Cherry Vanilla, with pretty pink and cream-colored flower heads, or Brightest Brilliant, which is stunning as a landscape plant but just as edible.
Quinoa can withstand frost but should be planted when soil has warmed to at least 60 degrees for best germination. Plant seeds in rows, about a quarter-inch deep. After they sprout, either thin the extra seedlings for consumption or carefully relocate to other fertile soil. Though the seed is small, the plant can get three to five feet tall, so seedlings should be at least ten inches apart. It grows slowly at first but speeds up once it’s over twelve inches tall. Maturity takes about 120 days, so be patient. When all the leaves drop off, it’s ready to harvest.
If you cannot wait until the seeds are completely dry, cut the stalks and dry seed heads inside. To protect from birds, encase seed heads in well-ventilated material like lightweight paper bags. This can also help catch seeds if you wait too long to harvest. Shake the heads to release seeds then separate from the chaff.
Quinoa seeds contain saponins, soapy and bitter coatings that must be washed off. This isn’t difficult. Soak seeds in cool water, swishing around. Rinse a couple times until water is clear and not frothy.
Cook quinoa the same as you would cook rice: one cup quinoa to two cups water. It can be prepared in a rice cooker or in a saucepan with a lid.
Though it is related to quinoa, seeds from the amaranth plant are smaller. It’s important to know which are grown for seed and which are ornamental. But the seed varieties can also be stunning.
Amaranth contains seven grams of high-quality protein per cup. It lacks the amino acids leucine and threonine, but pairing the grain with wheat germ makes it a complete protein. Amaranth is inedible while raw and must be cooked prior to consumption.
Aztecs grew amaranth plants as a staple food crop but Spanish conquistadors outlawed it because they considered its use in religious context to be pagan. Currently, most amaranth is sold in health food stores, though some is grown in Mexico for a festival candy.
Because of its brilliant colors, amaranth has been grown ornamentally for hundreds of years. Love-Lies-Bleeding, an especially popular cultivar, drapes red rope-like flowers toward the ground. But though seeds can be harvested, this amaranth plant’s value lies more in its aesthetic appeal. Choose cultivars which have been historically grown for seed. A good retail company will tell you which are which. And the seed varieties are still beautiful, such as Orange Giant or Elena’s Rojo. It’s also advised that food gardeners choose light-colored amaranth, since the black-seeded varieties can stay gritty when cooked.
Sow amaranth plants as you would quinoa, when soil is between 65 and 75 degrees. Thin to twelve or eighteen inches apart after seedlings sprout, depending on variety. Giant cultivars can grow to eight feet and need more room between plants.
Seeds ripen when the plant is around three months old but amaranth plants keep flowering until frost. If you rub seed heads between your hands and seeds fall, they’re ready. The best time to harvest is a few days before the first frost, during dry weather. Bend plants over a bucket and shake or rub seed heads. Or wrap seed heads in a plastic or paper bag and cut from the stalk. Clean by shaking seeds through a screen to catch chaff.
Cook similarly to quinoa but for a few minutes less.
Yet another Aztec food source is used most commonly on yogurt, within pudding and to boost kombucha benefits. Though research on potential health benefits is still new and inconclusive, scientists know that five grams of protein exist within two tablespoons of seeds and it’s a complete protein source. Chia is also rich in B vitamins, thiamin, and niacin.
A member of the mint family, chia grows tall and thin instead of hugging the ground. But unlike mint, it’s very frost-sensitive. Flowering is determined by length of daylight and it is a short-day plant, meaning gardeners north of Tennessee and Kentucky may not harvest seed before the first frost. Though seed for planting is sold online, very few tutorials exist beyond sprouting on a Chia Pet. Cultivation is easiest within Mexico and Central America, where days are short and weather is warm. Gardeners growing their own proteins will find it easier to cultivate amaranth plants than chia.
Beans, Peas, and Lentils
“Pulses” include legumes such as alfalfa, clover, beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. Though legumes are not complete proteins, they become complete when paired with grains such as wheat, corn, and rice. And they are so easy to grow that cultures around the world have cultivated them from ancient times. Black beans from the Americas, fava beans found in Egyptian tombs; peas from the Mediterranean basin and lentils in the Near East.
Within the Bible, Daniel and three other boys refused the king’s meat and wine, requesting instead to eat pulses and water. After ten days, the four boys were found to be in much better health than the other boys on the king’s diet. Pulses have more benefits than just protein. High in fiber, they are a home remedy for constipation. Black beans have a high antioxidant content and lima beans are lowest in fat.
Beans, peas, and lentils grow similarly other than one factor: beans are frost-sensitive. Hardy peas and lentils sprout and grow even during light frosts. Plant pulses and provide support for those that have tendrils or a “pole” habit. Most pods are edible while young but don’t pick them too soon. Allow pods to mature fully on the plant. When the outer hull is dry, carefully break it off the plant. The hulls easily open and legumes spill out.
Complete proteins can include red beans and rice, lentil dal and naan bread, black bean tacos on corn tortillas, or green pea soup and hot biscuits.
Nuts are fruits composed of a hard shell and a seed. It’s the seed which is generally edible. Most nuts come from trees, with the exception of prickly water lilies and water chestnuts.
In addition to high levels of protein, nuts also contain fats necessary for brain and cardiovascular health. Walnuts rank high on the antioxidants food list.
Growing your own nuts often requires acreage, or at least owning a parcel of land suitable for a tree. Research which nuts grow in your area; for instance, walnuts can withstand heavy frosts while pecans thrive in the southern states.
To make a complete protein, combine nuts with either legumes or grains. Oatmeal with almonds, or bread with chopped nuts, offer all essential amino acids.
This broad group contains seeds from squash and pumpkins, quinoa and amaranth plants, sunflowers, flax, sesame and many others. They contain valuable fats and oils in addition to protein. And seeds are often the easiest proteins to grow.
Pumpkin seeds, containing eight grams of protein per quarter cup, are an excellent source of magnesium. They’re also a byproduct of another extremely healthy plant. Enjoy squash and pumpkin flesh for beta carotene and vitamins C and E. Save the seeds and consume with or without hulls. If you prefer your pumpkin seeds without the fibrous shell, grow kakai squash. The thin flesh is edible but not tasty; the value lies inside. To grow crops with high value inside and out, try sugar pumpkin or butternut squash.
One of the only crops to originate in North America, sunflowers have been grown for their seeds by the Iroquois and surrounding tribes. From America, they traveled to Europe, where Russian czar Peter the Great encouraged cultivation. They returned to America with many varieties from ornamentals to those grown for food. Growing sunflowers from seed is easy. For food, choose Mammoth Russian, which is also known as Russian Greystripe or simply Mammoth.
Pair seeds with legumes or grain to attain all essential amino acids. Examples include hummus with tahini, trail mix containing both peanuts and sunflower seeds, or oat-nut breads.
Greens with Protein
Though they don’t contain as much protein as grains, seeds and nuts, green vegetables have strong nutritional value. Many are doubly valuable, such as leaves from quinoa and amaranth plants.
Spinach contains five grams of protein per cup and over twenty vitamins and minerals. Artichokes have high amounts of fiber as well. Though it only contains four grams of protein per cup, broccoli also provides 30 percent of daily calcium needs, which is important for people who don’t consume dairy products. Asparagus’ protein content is similar to broccoli but it also offers folate and B vitamins. And the leaves of amaranth plants are packed with fiber, vitamin C, and manganese.
Combine greens with legumes, grains, or seeds to make complete proteins. This can include soups made with lentils and kale or salads topped with sunflower and flaxseeds.
Though some protein sources are difficult to cultivate in certain areas, like chia seeds, amaranth plants and pulses grow almost anywhere and are easy to harvest. If you don’t attain all your protein from meat or dairy, or you’re considering cutting back on animal sources, try growing plants for sustainable nutrition.
Do you grow amaranth plants or any other high protein plants to support a vegan diet? Let us know in the comments below.