I’m not particularly eager to over-hype individual plants, but it has to be said, spinach packs a punch in almost every essential nutritional profile you can imagine.
It is an outstanding source of minerals such as potassium (almost twice that of bananas),
magnesium, zinc, and phosphorous, plus a veritable alphabet of vitamins.
It’s also high in fiber, beneficial antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, flavonoids, and carotenoids.
Spinach is an absolute powerhouse of health benefits. As children, most of us turn up our noses at spinach, but once our palates mature, we can appreciate the wonderfully complex bitter notes that help spinach transform meals.
I was happily astonished when one of my kids huffed in fine teen form, complete
with eye-roll, “Of course I like spinach!”.
Delicious dishes, such as spanakopita, ricotta tortellini, palak paneer, and the party favorite
cob loaf dip would be nothing without these tasty greens.
And there’s barely a cafe ‘big breakfast’ that doesn’t feature spinach as aside.
We commonly refer to spinach (Spinacia oleracea) as English, but this member of the amaranth family somewhat surprisingly originates in the Middle East.
It first traveled to China in the 7th century before arriving in Spain four hundred years later.
With their ability to germinate and grow in cooler soils, spinach cultivars quickly became popular throughout Europe.
Spinach needs full sun and good drainage, so raise beds in areas prone to waterlogging.
It also requires nitrogen-rich soil as a leafy vegetable: dig in plenty of well-rotted organic matter – if possible, a few weeks before planting time.
If your soil is already rich and friable, sprinkle blood and bone, pelletized chicken manure, and a layer of aged cow manure.
Add a cup of lime per square meter to acid soils for a neutral–slightly alkaline pH; add gypsum to heavy clays.
Lightly rake these through, then water and mulch thoroughly so the goodies can
begin their magic.
Right Time, Right Place
Planting at the right time is essential. Spinach grows best in the shoulder and colder seasons.
In summer, it sprouts quickly to seed instead of creating leafy plants. Hence, if you live in tropical or subtropical regions such as the northern part of Australia, sow spinach from late autumn to winter.
In temperate regions, sow from autumn to early winter, and in the cold areas such as Tasmania, the southernmost mainland, and the highlands, sow from late summer to late spring.
Some cultivars are more heat-tolerant or less prone to bolting than others and extend the planting opportunities, so choose them if they better suit your climate (see ‘Top Choices’). Alternatively, select a spinach substitute that thrives in summer and the tropics.
Spinach is available in punnets, but the seed is preferable because plants hate root disturbance.
Clear mulch to one side and sow a row of groups of three seeds 12mm deep, with groups about 30cm apart, depending on the variety.
Soaking seed in water overnight beforehand hastens germination.
When they emerge, thin to strongest seedling (this will be a tiny clump of seedlings from the compound seed – leave the chunk intact).
Keep well-watered and apply worm juice, diluted fish emulsion, and compost teas fortnightly to keep plants growing strongly.
Pests and Diseases
Prevent slugs and snails with veggie net, traps, or diatomaceous earth. Use eco oil to control aphids.
Spinach occasionally succumbs to fungal diseases if planted too densely, gets waterlogged,
or is in too much shade.
You can spray liquid copper at the first sign of disease, but prevention is better than cure: improve drainage, rotate crops, and space plants more widely.
Cut baby spinach leaves with scissors as soon as plants are about 10cm tall and leaves are about 4cm long.
Other spinach varieties snip or pull outer leaves throughout winter or harvest the whole plant once mature.
When the weather warms, and central stems begin to elongate, harvest immediately.
Excellent spinach substitutes are available for warmer seasons and regions too hot for English spinach.
BRAZILIAN SPINACH (Alternanthera sissoo) has eatable leaves that can be steam cooked or stir-fried.
It is a perennial ground cover for tropical and subtropical regions only.
FRENCH SPINACH OR ORACHE (Atriplex hortensis) is a mild season, annual shrub with leaves that taste like salty spinach.
NEW ZEALAND SPINACH (Tetragonia tetragonioides) disease-resistant perennial also native to Australia.
It can survive light frost and is ideal for sandy coastal conditions. Provide full sun and good drainage. Leaves taste best cooked.
MALABAR SPINACH (Basella alba) above right has fleshy, mucilaginous green leaves, which can be consumed raw when young or cooked in stews and stews as a thickening agent. It is a cold, tender perennial climber.
PERPETUAL SPINACH (Beta vulgaris var.) is a very hardy, traditional silverbeet that also naturalizes freely in my garden.
Plants are green throughout with short, narrow stems and leaves with a flavor remarkably close to that of spinach—sow year-round in tropical climates or September to May in temperate zones.
SILVERBEET AND SWISS CHARD (B. Vulgaris var. cicla) have a milder flavor and thrive in the height of summer.
In my veggie patch, I let red and yellow varieties and green and white such as ‘Fordhook Giant’ seed, and they pop up throughout the garden.
KEY TO SUCCESS
- Choose a sunny, open, well-drained spot.
- Ensure soil has plenty of nitrogen: using pelletized
- chicken manure, blood, and bone, and/or old cow manure.
- Add a cupful of lime per square meter to acid soils.
- Add 1 kg/sqm of gypsum to clay soils.
- Mulch well.
- Plant at the correct time of year.
- Choose an appropriate variety.
- Plant 12mm deep, 30cm apart.
- Fertilize fortnightly with diluted fish emulsion, worm juice, or compost tea.
- Protect from slugs and snails.
- Harvest outer leaves as you.
For an easy side, saute garlic and onion in olive oil, then toss through washed, chopped spinach until just wilted.
Add to quiches and omelettes. Use young leaves instead of lettuce in salads or
Add as ‘sneaky veg’ for fussy kids: spinach contains so many nutrients that a little goes a long way.
Hide finely chopped leaves in pasta sauces, pies, stews, and soups.
To freeze spinach for most prolonged storage, blanch washed leaves in a steamer for a few minutes, then place into iced water.
Drain thoroughly, and place portion sizes in storage bags with the air squeezed out or into vacuum seal bags.
Alternatively, puree raw spinach with a bit of water, freeze in ice cube trays and place into containers.