Autumn has begun to cast its chill over us, and in many parts of the United States, our vegetable gardens are showing sure signs of shutting down for the season. Sweet corn and green beans are squirreled away in our freezers and pantries for winter dinners. The tomatoes and peppers provided their last harvests before the first frosts hit. Late summer and early autumn are the perfect time to clean out the exhausted plants from the mid-season crops, and sow a few last rows of leafy greens to bring the season to a close! Spinach is a prime example of a fast-growing crop that will offer delicious dividends for the minimal effort it takes to sow a few rows. A little planning is all it takes to extend the usefulness of your summer garden into the fall months.
My love affair with spinach, admittedly, had a slow start. I rarely had it as a child, and my primary childhood associations are the pile of soggy, greasy-looking creamed spinach on my school lunch tray, and the dubious pronouncements of Pop-eye the Sailor Man, who attributed his "muss-cles" to his habit of downing cans of spinach. I have to wonder if any kids were truly enticed to give spinach a chance by his endorsements!
It wasn't until my college years, when my tastes in foods widened considerably, that I discovered that I actually LIKED spinach. It all began with a wilted spinach salad with warm bacon dressing, and has steadily progressed from there! I consider it one of my crowning achievements as a parent that my 12 year old son requests spinach on all of his sub sandwiches, and piles his salad bar plate with the leafy greens, bypassing the iceberg lettuce completely. He has even hinted broadly that we ought to add a salad spinner to our array of kitchen tools!
Spinach makes an excellent crop for both spring and fall gardens, offering the possibility of triple-cropping. It germinates quickly, and can be harvested as young, tender baby leaves within about 6 weeks. To get the most from your garden, you might consider sowing spinach in early spring, as it can endure some fairly chilly temperatures. It is very tolerant of cold, and can be planted a few weeks before your last frost date (look up your last frost date on the Dave's Garden Frost and Freeze Dates Calculator). Similarly, you can extend the harvest past your first frost date in the fall, when the summer vegetables are nipped and destroyed by the chill. If you have access to a cold frame, you can extend your harvest even farther in both directions, sowing earlier in the spring and extending your harvests deep into the fall, and even into early winter!
Spinach is not very tolerant of heat or drought, so as it bolts (goes to seed, and becomes bitter and leggy), replace it with mid-season crops. I do a second sowing of green beans when my spinach is gone, but there are many other crops that would work equally well. In the past, I have closely alternated spinach and carrot rows, as the carrots take a long time to mature, and the spinach can be harvested quickly. As your mid-season crops come to a close, you can again replace them with spinach and other leafy greens, and get one final harvest from the same piece of ground.
You can either plan to sow your spinach in rows or in blocks, whichever fits into the space you have available. When I sow it in my cold frame, I prefer the block method, and sow several different varieties to extend my options. Spinach is a "cut and come again" crop, meaning that you can pluck a few leaves off as needed, or even cut the entire plant an inch above soil level, and it will grow back to provide another harvest. I do have to warn you that spinach is generally not very successful in highly acidic soils. If your soil has tested well into the acidic range, consider adding lime to bring the pH down. As I live in a river valley, with highly alkaline soil, this has never been a particular concern for me.
As you peruse the seed packets, you will find that most spinach falls into a few broad categories. Here are some descriptions, to help you understand the differences. Click on any linked variety to see the PlantFiles entry regarding it:
Savoy types have deeply ruffled leaves, with a lot of dimpling and curling. As a result, it requires more thorough washing to remove all the dirt and sand. One of the advantages of this type is that it is slower to bolt, giving you a longer period to harvest the leaves. It has a little firmer texture and stronger flavor, and provides a nice crunch in a salad or sandwich. One common variety within this type is Bloomsdale Long-standing, which is the variety pictured at the very start of this article.
Semi-savoy types are also ruffled, but less so. This makes them easier to wash with your kitchen sprayer. In my garden, at least, the semi-savoy have a little milder flavor, which makes them more appealing to kids. A favorite variety in my garden is Melody, which combines good flavor with a long harvest. In corresponding with Farmerdill, a DG member who is very active on the Beginner Vegetables forum, I learned that in the southern regions, such as his native Georgia, a semi-savoy variety called Skookum fares particularly well. Farmerdill writes that Skookum is "a semi savoy, dark green, very vigorous. Overall it has performed better here than other cultivars."
Smooth types are what you may be most familiar with, if you purchase bagged spinach at the grocery store. It sports shorter, sometimes heart-shaped or arrow-shaped leaves. It is often labeled as "baby spinach" in grocery store, when the leaves are harvested very early in development. Of the three, it has the mildest, sweetest flavor, and is easiest to wash, as the leaves are flat and smooth. Smooth varieties are less crisp, with a softer texture, but are excellent as an ingredient in foods. I like to chop some and include in the ricotta cheese layer of lasagna, as it gives color and flavor without changing the texture. In my zone 5 garden in central Illinois, Space Hybrid fares particularly well. Though Bloomsdale Long-standing is touted for its resistance to bolting, I generally find that Space Hybrid is the longest yielding and last to bolt in my garden. I find the smooth-leaved varieties ideal for freezing, as it is more tender in texture, and less prone to getting stringy. Farmerdill again had some recommendations for southern farmers, writing, "I have reasonable results with the smooth leaved Hellcat and Renegade but they are not quite as tender. Teton has done reasonably well and is quicker than most." For those with a shorter cool-weather growing season, days to maturity is an important factor to consider!
Nutritionally speaking, there is a lot of misinformation out there about spinach. Pop-eye is not exempt, as he claimed all the iron was good for his muscles. Spinach is, indeed, high in iron, but it is what is referred to as non-heme iron (as opposed to heme-iron, which is found in meat and animal products), and is not well-absorbed by the human body. Spinach also contains a substance known as oxalic acid, or oxalate, which prevents us from fully benefiting from the iron in spinach. (If you are prone to kidney problems, I would warn you against regularly consuming foods containing oxalate, as it can contribute to formation of kidney stones.) Any woman who has taken prenatal vitamins and iron supplements during pregnancy might remember their doctor telling them not to take their iron and calcium supplements together, as each hinders the absorption of the other. Instead, it is helpful to eat or drink something high in vitamin C along with the spinach, to help your body get the highest possible benefit from the iron. Some examples are citrus foods or juices, strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, or green and red peppers. The recipe possibilities are tantalizing!
Spinach is is very high in other essential vitamins. Nutritionists have long encouraged us to increase our intake of dark green, leafy vegetables, and spinach is right at the top of the list for nutritional value! Sometimes referred to as a Super Food, spinach is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, and is very high in antioxidants, which are touted for their ability to protect against various forms of cancer. A detailed nutritional analysis is beyond the scope of this article. However, if you are interested in researching the health benefits of spinach, I would urge you to consider your sources carefully, as I found a wealth of questionable and contradictory information online as I researched!
In terms of preparation, you will gain maximum nutritional benefit by eating the greens raw, or minimally cooked. Spinach is wonderful raw. To give your sandwiches a boost, consider replacing your lettuce with spinach leaves. Make spinach an element in mixed green salads, or as a stand-alone green in a salad like this spinach-strawberry salad. I greatly enjoyed this salad at the 2009 Iowa Round-up, and obtained Judi Pohorsky's permission to include it in this article.
Spinach and Strawberry Salad from Judi Pohorsky (DG Member Poho)
Ingredients: Approximately 6 c. of spinach, torn into small pieces 4 cups of sliced strawberries Optional: add a can of mandarin oranges for additional color
Dressing: 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/4 cup vinegar (white, balsamic, or apple vinegar; each gives a different flavor) 1/2 cup white sugar 1/4 teaspoon paprika 2 tablespoons sesame seeds 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
Directions: Put the dressing ingredients in a jar, seal tightly with a lid, and shake to thoroughly mix. When ready to serve, mix spinach and strawberries together. Pour on dressing and toss to coat.
Angie's note: When I make this salad for my family, I make only a half-batch of the dressing, as they seem to like it better lightly dressed. I also sometimes add a sprinkle of slivered almonds or cashews, for an extra crunch.
Another option is to lightly sauté the leaves and tender stems, just until wilted. Toss with chopped nuts, for a crunch, or squeeze fresh lemon wedges over the leaves to add a bit of bite. The easiest way to cook spinach without destroying a significant portion of its nutritional benefit is to thoroughly wash the leaves, and then cook them, still wet, briefly in the microwave. If you prefer to steam or boil your spinach, consider drinking the cooking liquid, or freezing it to add to vegetable stock in a later recipe.
I often use my frozen spinach in Italian dishes, such as lasagna or stuffed pasta dishes. I have found that both my husband, who is a very reluctant vegetable eater, and my two sons prefer their cooked spinach finely chopped in various dishes, to prevent finding any long, stringy tendrils in their food. This also reduces the likelihood that you'll discover at bedtime that you've been sporting a strand of spinach between your teeth since lunch.
Spinach is also a star contender as an ingredient, rather than the main attraction, such as in this white-bean and spinach ragout. It is quick, easy, and a hit at potlucks and cook-outs!
Tomato-Spinach Ragout with White Beans Prep time: 15 minutes
Ingredients: 2 cups fresh tomatoes, seeded and chopped (may substitute one 14-1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes. I particularly like the fire-roasted diced tomatoes) 4 slices bacon, diced 1 medium onion, sliced thin 1 clove garlic, minced 1 15-ounce can cannellini or navy beans, rinsed and drained 4 cups loosely packed torn spinach (may substitute 1 c. frozen spinach, in a pinch) 4 teaspoons prepared balsamic or red wine vinaigrette
Directions: In a large skillet cook bacon pieces until crisp. Drain bacon on paper towels, leaving 1 tablespoon drippings in skillet. Add onions and minced garlic to drippings in skillet. Sautee until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in beans and undrained tomatoes. Cook and stir over medium heat for 2 minutes or until heated through. Stir in the cooked bacon and spinach; cover and cook until spinach wilts, about 30 seconds. Drizzle with prepared vinaigrette. Makes 4 good-sized side-dish servings.
You can substitute turkey bacon or reduced sodium bacon, and cut the quantity to 2 slices, if you are trying to watch your fat intake. I love the salty, savory flavor of the bacon, though, and think it is an indispensible part of the recipe!
If you have never grown spinach in your home vegetable garden, I encourage you to give it a try! It is an easy, low-maintenance vegetable, and the compliments you'll get around the dinner table (even from professed spinach-haters) will be gratifying!
Special thanks to Farmerdill for the use of his images and the information he shared about growing spinach in the southern regions, and to Poho for sharing her spinach salad recipe! The image of strawberry spinach salad is from Photobucket, and is licensed for free limited use.
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!