February 22, 2000

Does anyone not like spinach? It has such a wonderful flavor, unlike that of any other salad green. A fresh spinach leaf has an unmistakable crunch, which simply can't be experienced unless it's fresh from your own garden! It seems everyone loves spinach - but not everyone grows it because it can be a bit temperamental.

The first thing you need to know about Spinacia oleracea is: It's a relative of beets. If you've ever pulled up a spinach plant, you've noticed that is has a taproot - this separates it from most other salad greens. Lettuce can be dug up and moved, and if you decide the new location doesn't suit, it can be moved again. Mustard transplants easily, as does kale. Dig up spinach, though, and you might as well toss it on the compost. Spinach can be transplanted, but not bare-root. If you want to get an early start on the crop, sow the seeds in 2-inch pots. Once they've begun to grow well, thin them with scissors to one plant per pot - don't pull them up or try to dig out the "extras". Try this, and I think you'll have more success.

Another thing many people don't realize about spinach is that it's photoperiodic. This means as the season progresses and the daytime gets longer, spinach tends to want to bolt (produce flowers and seed). Many old-fashioned spinach varieties will basically not produce a crop during summer - they'll just start flowering before you can pick any leaves. Fortunately there are new varieties of spinach that are more resistant to bolting - Indian Summer and Olympia are good. Even these, though, will not last long in the garden; so for summer harvest be sure to sow a new crop every two weeks. Save the older varieties for fall, winter, or spring salads.

Here's another surprise - not all "spinach" is really spinach! I don't buy seeds from store seed racks any more, but I do browse them occasionally. On almost every rack I've seen the "spinach" offered on these racks is either New Zealand Spinach or Malabar Spinach. These are unrelated plants whose flavor bears a slight resemblance to the real McCoy. In my opinion their flavor and texture are rather second-rate, and they aren't worth the space they'll take up in your garden.

Spinach seed doesn't live very long, and isn't very vigorous. This means it's important to purchase it from a reputable merchant like Territorial, Johnny's, or Cooks. These companies go out of their way to provide high quality commercial-grade seed. If you start with good seed and store it properly, you can probably use it for two seasons - for tips on storing your seed, look at our FAQ on Seeds.

Even with good quality seed, I think it's wise to sow it fairly dense in the garden. A lot of plants come up, but spinach has to overcome a lot of hurdles (such as being the slugs' absolute favorite chow). I sow two or three seeds per inch, cover it with a fine potting soil, and don't thin it until the plants are growing fast and strong. Eventually the plants should be about six inches apart; but thin them gradually, and save the thinnings for your salads. While spinach does well with a complete organic fertilizer (1/2 cup or so per five row feet), I also like to side-dress it with blood meal when it's a month or so old to give it an extra boost of nitrogen. This is especially important in spring, since the cold soil means less available nutrition for the plants.

Slugs tend to be the main problem. Control them and you'll almost be guaranteed success (I realize that's more easily said than done). In the fall, the armyworm (a caterpillar, Spodoptera spp.) can be a pest; if necessary it can be controlled with row covers or Bt. I've also occasionally seen leaf miners in my spinach, although they seem to prefer beets and chard. Row covers will control these pests as well.

With our mild winters, spinach is a natural for the winter garden. It can handle as much cold as our climate can dish out - but it doesn't do well with the rain. Sow it the first half of August, grow it under a cloche or hoophouse, and you'll enjoy spinach salads in January! My favorite varieties for this season are Bloomsdale Savoy and Tyee. Bloomsdale tastes a bit better, but it has no disease resistance. Like many other winter crops, spinach can have problems with downy mildew.

I hope you're encouraged to try growing this wonderful green!

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013