Fresher is better… and growing your own is dead easy
Spinach is a great crop to grow if one is new to gardening or has limited space available for growing food. Although it is one of the more inexpensive items in the produce aisle it is often not fresh enough to look very appetising.
Growing your own food has a much larger beneficial impact on scarce resources such as water than most people realise. Vast amounts of produce never make it to consumers’ tables and end up as waste somewhere, rotting away, causing environmental hazards or attracting vermin. One does not need a dedicated vegetable patch either: productive plants such as spinach can be just as ornamental as others that grow in the flower garden.
Take your pick
In layman’s terms a variety of species pass for spinach: 1
True spinach (Savoy types and others with smooth leaves) tends to be a little more finicky. It prefers cooler temperatures and will bolt easily with sudden warm weather. Grow it in clumps or rows depending on how much you might require at a time. (Ideally one should be able to crop a clump all at once, taking all the biggest leaves, and only return to the same
clump a few days later, allowing it some time to regrow.) 2
Swiss chard, which is part of the beetroot family, is probably the easiest and most common “spinach” to grow. It comes in many colours and looks beautiful in the veggie patch or even in the front garden. 3
Baby leaf spinach – the hybrid Dash is commonly available and its small tender leaves are great in salads. For the best results sow it thickly in rows or bunches. As the name suggests it grows rapidly and can be cropped every few days. Also remember that one cannot harvest and use the seed of hybrid varieties – only that of heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. 4
New Zealand spinach, like Malabar spinach below, will thrive in warm conditions, and can even tolerate brackish soil. It contains a good amount of omega 3 fatty acids – so it’s great for feeding chickens, too. 5
Malabar spinach is a climbing plant that grows astoundingly fast in hot conditions but it is very frost sensitive. Although spinach is partial to spring and autumn, most of the varieties above will grow happily throughout the year. It can be sown with success at any time except the middle of winter in places where minimum temperatures fall below 0ºC. True spinach varieties grow better in cool and temperate climates but will grow in warm areas as well if they are shielded from the harsh afternoon sun in summer.
Seed or seedlings?
Spinach seedlings are relatively easy to find at nurseries. However, it is recommended rather to grow spinach from seed. The best time to sow is at the beginning of spring or autumn.
Sow the seed in rows or clumps 1cm to 2cm deep. Oversow a pot or a patch in the garden and leave a few of the strongest plants (about 10cm apart) to mature while using the rest young. The tender young leaves are a great complement to other micro greens; some varieties provide a splash of yellow, red or pink in salads.
The strategy of oversowing is one that nature itself often employs – safety in numbers: your seedlings might fall prey to a pest or adverse environmental factors, causing the loss of a few. The plants that make it to maturity will be more resilient. As few as five strong plants of the larger varieties can provide a steady supply of fresh leaves. Allowing one or two of these to go to seed will ensure the strongest genes are carried forward. >
Keep them happy
NITROGREN In order for plants to produce large leaves and many of them, you need to provide them with ample nitrogen. Sow a few climbing beans in summer, peas in spring and autumn, or even sweet peas in between to help fix nitrogen. Alternatively, mix a handful of bone meal or well-rotted manure into the soil. (Fresh manure may contain dangerous pathogens, and the urea in manure can chemically burn plant roots and be detrimental to beneficial soil organisms.)
PESTS & PROBLEMS Growing spinach in containers will discourage many of the common pests that want to share in your bounty: snails, slugs, small grasshoppers to name a few. One inventive gardener has even used copper wire and an AA battery to make a small electric fence to deter snails and slugs. Another strategy is to provide snails with a few decaying leaves or stems. Slugs and snails generally prefer decaying matter over living matter. Simply sacrifice a leaf now and then by laying it down under the plants.
It’s harvest time!
Most South Africans prefer to grow hardier Swiss chard, which is a breeze to harvest: once it’s large enough, start harvesting the leaves from the bottom up. Snap the leaves off at the base of the stem rather than cutting them and leaving stems that will waste the energy of the plant.
The plants can last a number of seasons but it is not recommended to keep them for longer than six months because the leaves get tougher and less tasty with age. They will often bolt in sudden hot weather. The spectacular flowers can last several weeks, adding form and colour to the garden.
One plant will provide a large number of seeds. Wait until the seeds have dried on the stem before harvesting them to resow at a later stage. The seeds are relatively large – nearly the size of peas – and are easily confused with beetroot seed. The abundance of seed allows one to sow it along with other micro greens such as mustard and radish.
Lastly, keep in mind that many species of green leaf crops, spinach included, contain oxalic acid, which can be toxic if ingested in large amounts. Eating more than 3kg of spinach daily for a prolonged period could be dangerous, as oxalic acid may interfere with the body’s ability to process calcium. It’s best to ensure that your diet includes a variety of greens. Most of us will never consume so much that it would become dangerous, but it does make you wonder about Popeye’s overall health…