Originally hailing from 4th-century Persia, spinach has a long and storied past as a health tonic, a poor man’s food, a favorite of big-forearmed sailor men, and a choice food of health gurus. We are constantly hearing about how important it is to eat your leafy greens, and for good reason—they’re fantastic for you and delicious! But with the number of pesticides used on conventional greens, and with the high price of organic greens, the best choice, in this writer’s mind, is to grow your own.
Spinach is often listed as a “problem” plant for home growers. Though they can be grown in any USDA growing zone, the seeds often won’t sprout if temperatures are over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And if left to its own devices, this plant will bolt as soon as it feels a little heat, putting all of its energy into making seeds and cutting off the growth of those tender, tasty greens.
I think the true problem with growing spinach is misunderstanding its design, and then expecting it to perform outside of its natural tendencies. Bolting spinach is merely responding to day length and temperature. Like any plant, it wants to make seeds as efficiently as possible so that it can propagate itself. So, the longer the day and the higher the temperature that surrounds a mature plant, the more likely it is to try to flower.
As an early spring green, it just doesn’t want to be around during the hot summer. You wouldn’t expect to see ephemeral spring wildflowers like spring beauties or trout lilies in mid-July…neither should you expect to have acres of tender spinach. On the flip side, gardeners blessed with cool summers should rejoice—spinach will stick with you far longer than those of us in the South!
Therefore, one of the biggest considerations you should take when planting spinach is the timing. Spinach seeds should probably be one of the first seeds you get in the ground. The plants can also survive light frosts, so they are a fantastic component of a winter garden—especially if you live in a region where winters don’t get much cooler than 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prepare your spinach beds by planting a cover crop over the winter or adding some compost—spinach does well with rich, neutral soil. Spinach beds should be in full or semi-full sunlight for best results, though if you live in a warm region, you may want to plant taller plants beside your spinach beds to offer some shade during the heat of the day.
To plant, soak spinach seeds in water or composted tea for a few hours before sowing them directly into the ground. This plant seems to detest being transplanted. Besides, it grows so well in cold, frosty ground that starting seeds indoors probably offers little advantage. If planting in rows, the seeds should be planted about 1/2-inch deep, 2 inches apart. As a spring plant, they thrive when being well-watered.
Tips For A Bountiful Harvest
Now, if you’re super-serious about getting a haul of spinach, I offer you this spinach-succession strategy inspired by The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener. In earliest spring, about six weeks before the last frost, plant a row of cold-tolerant cultivars of spinach (try “Norfolk”). Continue planting a row or so of seeds every two weeks, shifting over to more heat-tolerant varieties like “sohshu,” “king of Denmark” or “Bloomsdale long standing.”
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Once the spring has warmed to over 70 degrees, sow spinach alternatives, like Swiss chard or Malabar spinach to hold you over until the weather cools. Once its time to switch gears and do your fall plantings (usually in late summer), plant the more cold-sensitive ones again, like “winter Bloomsdale,” “Virginia savoy,” or “Norfolk.”
Keep those rows well-mulched or grow in a cold frame, and that will help you extend the fall harvest. That should give you the maximum amount of greens with a little less disappointment!
It’s easy to know when it’s time to harvest spinach—simply pick it when the leaves are big enough to use! You can pick as you need, plucking leaves from the outside of the plant, leaving the inner leaves to develop. Or you can harvest the entire lot all at once.
The early spring varieties—those prone to bolt—are often harvested by grabbing the entire plant and snipping the leaves from the base with clean scissors or a knife. Leave 2 inches of stem sticking up from the ground—including the tender growing point in the center— to give yourself the chance to make a second and third harvest.
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Plan to harvest spinach in the early morning when it’s cool, if possible. Otherwise, bring a bowl of cool water out with you while collecting—plunge the leaves in as soon as you cut them to keep them fresh and unwilted.
However you decide to harvest, be sure to leave a few plants to purposely bolt and go to seed—this will give you the seeds you need for the next planting season’s round of spinach! Be aware that all true spinach varieties can cross—and they’re wind-pollinated. One way to make sure your plants breed true is to plant only one cultivar.
Common Spinach Plant Diseases And Pests
The most common diseases with spinach are blight and downy mildew. Both of these are caused when spinach matures in warm weather, so the best way to avoid them is to plant your spinach as early as possible!
On the pest front, you’ll probably wage war with leaf miners more than any other insect. Since these are a leaf crop, I strongly discourage using any sort of chemical pesticide to resolve the problem: You’d be spraying poison directly on your food!
If you only see a few of the tell-tale paths on your spinach, simply discard the affected leaves. In the case of a more serious infestation, Jere Gettle, founder of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, recommends using row covers.
To Savoy Or Not To Savoy … That Is The Question
There are many spinach varieties to choose from! I love looking through the Annie’s Heirloom and Baker Creek catalogs and dreaming leafy dreams. To be honest, I only recommend heirloom varieties—I love growing wonderfully unique varieties not available in stores, preserving open-pollinated heirloom plants, and saving seeds for next year’s garden. Hybrid varieties don’t breed true, so keep that in mind when saving your seeds!
As you choose your spinach plants, you may notice that some varieties are described as savoy-leaved. To those unfamiliar with the term, “savoy” is a term used to describe wrinkled, crinkled leaves. Savoy style leaves hold up much better when cooked, but all those nooks and crannies are notorious for hiding pockets of dirt.
An ancient anecdote about preparing savoy-leafed spinach is to wash it 12 times before cooking—11 times in water and the final rinse in frustrated human tears! The alternative to savoy-leaved spinach is smooth spinach—you’ve seen this type when you buy a bag of baby spinach at the grocery store.
Heat-Loving Spinach Alternatives
So, you love spinach as much as I do (that’s a lot), but maybe you’re finding that it always bolts or doesn’t grow well in your area.
Or, maybe you just didn’t get the seeds in the ground in time, and now it’s too warm to grow it. Don’t give up hope! If your garden never seems to produce spinach, here’s a veritable army of lesser-known yet just-as-delicious spinach alternatives to fill in your need for greens.
You may want to grow this bizarre, easy-to-grow plant for its Willy Wonka looks alone! Both the leaves and mildly-sweet berries are edible. This cousin of quinoa is reported to be relatively pest-free as well!
You can buy seeds for Chenopodium album here, but it may just be easier to take a walk in your backyard—it’s probably growing wild there already. Also a relative of quinoa, it is so easy to grow, thriving in poor soils and dry areas.
Though the stems do get woody late in the summer, the leaves are tender and sweet all season long.
Wherever I live, I find, transplant, and cultivate a patch of these super-versatile wild greens.
Red Aztec Spinach
Yes, yet another quinoa relative, and probably the most drought-resistant of the lot. Red Aztec Spinach thrives in dry conditions and even offers an edible grain at the end of the season.
Red Malabar Spinach
Though this heat-loving vine is not related to spinach, its greens can be used in exactly the same salads and stir-fries. Tropical gardens can grow it as a perennial, but more temperate areas will have to grow it as an annual.
New Zealand Spinach
If you live in an area with dramatic weather changes, this may be the green for you! Though New Zealand Spinach can’t handle a frost, it can steadily produce greens through the hottest summer you can throw at it.
As this summer winds down, and all your hard-working summer beds start getting worn out, don’t throw in the towel just yet! Slap your gloves back on, dress up a row with some beautiful compost, and get those spinach seeds in the ground. As the trees start to display the first touches of orange and gold, your garden can still be lush with the deep, rich green of this useful and nutritious plant.
- The American Horticultural Society Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening: Vegetables
- The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener, Karan Davis Cutler
- The Heirloom Life Gardener, Jere and Emilee Gettle