Have you ever heard of Red Aztec Spinach, Huauzontle, or Chenopodium nuttalliae? They’re all the same plant. It’s an eat-all green. It grows edible leaves through August’s scorching heat and then gives you a seed grain that is like quinoa but lacking the soapy saponins that cause that bitter flavor.

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Broadcast plot.

I knew huauzontle was a former Native American staple crop, so I guessed that it was likely minimally watered and possibly dry farmed. This all occurred to me only after the bare patch appeared on the side lawn where the stick pile was kept before burning. I saw the bare patch as an opportunity. No till, no disturbance, and no watering – the scene was set.

I took handfuls of huauzontle and orange giant amaranth (one of my top performers) and broadcast sowed them over the patch thickly, knowing that the thicker the planting the more condensation and shade. It also would mean more competition which always highlights the top performers which are the plants to save seed from. At this point, I walked away and didn’t return until weeks later to see how things were progressing.

El Nino was playing a hand to a degree in the regular rains we had this year, but it seemed that nearly all the seeds sprouted. I recently did a germination test for Baker Creek, and the seeds have a 99% germination rate in the damp paper towel setting. I was initially disappointed when the goats got out and grazed off the tops of the best performing plants, but later I’d see how that was exactly what I needed.

Very similar to the STUN method by Mark Shepherd, I am trying to breed drought resistant seed, but different than Mark, I’m doing it with annuals which are not as forgiving or hardy. The idea is this: we need to use less water and less work, so we can scale up without it breaking our backs, the bank, or the well.

I started by saving all my seed in bulk year one, and then replanted them everywhere broadcast sown but mostly on the edges to feed and deter deer from coming into my system (since I have no fences and the dog sleeps inside nowadays). I saved only from the best of the best that year which was five times the amount of seed from the year prior. Using this seed, I planted out the dry patch and the farther edges of my systems, just past the waterers reach.

So what happened? Most of the seed sprouted and soon stunted. Several plants grew as if nothing was abnormal, and these were the ones the goats ate the tops, naturally. Luckily, it seems that this is exactly what was needed. Each branch below the cut switched from producing leaves to producing seed heads. Perhaps even the Native Americans trained the plants this way. It looked exactly like another chenopodium when going to seed: Strawberry Spinach or Chenopodium capitatum).

The beauty of chenopodiums is that they are all relatives of lamb’s quarter (also called goosefoot or Chenopodium berlandieri) which means the local animals don’t eat them readily because they mostly all appear or smell like lamb’s quarter, a common garden weed. Quinoa is also a chenopodium, and Huauzontle’s seeds look similar when in a watered garden setting, but that is not what happened in the dry farm plot.

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Dark quinoa seeds next to regular seed (light color) showing the result of dry farming.

Instead of tan lightly browned huauzontle seeds that usually look like tiny quinoa, they were matte black as if they were burned. Instead of whitish tan, matte-finish amaranth seeds I planted, they were jet black and shiny when I harvested them. I was surprised but then I remembered that the yellow pear tomato plant that grew in gravel had black seeds when I harvested it as well. The color may have to do with UV protection – the plants may be anticipating a long dry period after they go to seed, so they produce black colored seed to protect them. Either way, I’m replanting these seeds next early spring both in the watered and dry gardens to see what comes up.

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