why i plant spinach late, and other tasty tidbits

OTHER THAN GARLIC, SPINACH IS THE LATEST food crop I sow here—and my earliest harvest reaped each spring. To celebrate the approach of fall, a reminder on how to grow it.

I have been known to plant spinach in my mittens, actually, as late as Thanksgiving, and again as early as March if the raised beds have drained out and the soil is workable.

Seeds sown from September until the ground freezes up, then topped with a floating row cover, will offer a real headstart of a harvest in the North in April, when much of the garden is barely ready for the first springtime seed. ‘Tyee’ is a particularly good variety for fall use because it overwinters well (particular if placed under a cover or coldframe).

The thing with spinach, whenever you grow it, is that it likes cooler weather—no warmer than, say, the mid-70s—and specifically requires cooler soil for good germination of the seeds. Hence its reputation as a spring or fall crop.

I either broadcast seeds in blocks or sow in 4-inch-wide bands about 1 inch apart (not less) within the bands, repeating with another band every two weeks from late March through the end of April or so, and again in late July and August. Rows of single seeds are also fine; whichever tactic, space your rows or bands a foot apart.

Baby leaves for salad can be clipped with scissors (after three weeks to a month from a spring sowing) or harvest the whole plant, roots and all, once the plants mature (in just under five weeks for some varieties, to about six for others).

reemay at the ready

daring to sow in summer

FARTHER NORTH OF ME, THE MAINE ORGANIC Farmers and Gardeners Association recommends spinach sowings every two weeks from mid-April through September 1—a much more defiant approach in those hottest months that requires careful selection of seed variety and also that you provide shade to buffer the summer’s hottest days.

If the soil is over 85 degrees F, forget germination, unless you try this: prepare and thoroughly water the area to be planted, then cover it with shade cloth for at least a few days, or better yet a week. One long-ago gardening friend used to keep boards left over from some home project on hand to cover and cool the rows before sowing and until germination.

I keep some support hoops, clothespins and a length of agricultural fabric at the ready, next to one raised bed, for when too much heat—or too little—is troubling some crop or another. By choosing the most bolt-resistant kinds and doing this extra prep plus the shading, you can turn spinach into a season-long affair.

If it’s the cold you’re trying to beat, perhaps the ultimate protection (short of spending $1,500 on a hoophouse) is this cheap and productive double-thick row cover from the amazing Eliot Coleman.  Now all that’s left is the decision on which spinach to grow—order several for their particular seasonal adaptability, and then there is the matter of texture…

savoy or smooth?

SPINACH VARIES IN LEAF SHAPE AND TEXTURE, variety to variety. But what are the pros and cons of savoy (crinkled-leaf) spinach versus smooth? The obvious one:

Smooth is easier to wash.  So are the more upright-growing types, though, whether flat leaf or not; ones whose leaves are held well above the soil line—even semi-savoys like ‘Tyee.’

Savoy (or semi-savoy, as many current lightly wrinkled varieties are classified) has more texture, and when used in salads, more hiding places to hold dressing if that’s your mouth’s desire.

Whichever you choose, a three-rinse washing routine is usually called for to avoid grittiness, though many gardeners and cooks claim that adding salt to the water speeds the process. What’s your secret?

  1. Kristi says:

    Great spinach information. Marauding chickens raided my spinach bed a few weeks ago and I haven’t gotten around to reseeding. Now I’m extra sorry.

    Any thoughts on planting spinach in a cold frame through the winter? Is it the same as the floating row cover?

  2. Amy says:

    Wow, that’s some nice looking spinach! Too bad I don’t have a garden at my place! Hopefully, I will have one after moving to a new location next year. Here’s the link to my new blog. I appreciate any feedbacks, thank you.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ellen — interesting idea. And I happen to have the spinach all ready to blend up… :)

      Welcome also to Amy — and thank you for the nice visit to “your place.” Seems like you are off to a very good start, congratulations.

      Sere you both soon again.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kulsum. I just had the most delightful visit to your blog, and got a great dal recipe, thank you. I think you are the very first comment I have ever received from Kuwait! Hope to see you again soon.

      @Kristi: A coldframe would work well, too.

      @Tom: I have grown it, but not lately. I am still stuck on spring and fall spinach but really going to be more persistent like the Maine group recommends on the summer regimen. It’s just that little extra bit of work…but so worth it, right?

  3. TomW says:

    Dear Margaret,
    Last year I grew spinach over the winter and could not believe how easy it was and how great it tasted. I am still in search of the perfect lettuce to overwinter (many will but often become bitter). I like Eliot’s row cover and have often done the same out here in the PNW. But I have found that in our mostly cloudy and damp weather, that mold and rot is a problem. For growing chard and some purple sprouting broccoli over winter, such a plastic hoop cover is necessary for plant survival past December. Hey – I have spinach growing now but am going to try planting some more now on your advice.

    PS: In the summer have you ever tried New Zealand spinach?

  4. Dee Langston says:

    Spinach will overwinter here in northeastern North Carolina; it just needs to be covered with some mulch when a freeze is expected. It won’t grow much in really cold weather, but in the early spring, you can pull back the mulch and make a salad before Easter, even if it comes in March. Our biggest problem here is heat and drought — I’m so ready to plant a fall garden, but it’s 91 degrees today!

    I did plant a small bed, which you can see here: http://behindthefence.net/2010/09/09/planting-cool-crops-in-hot-weather/, and some lettuce and carrots have come up, but it needs watering at least twice a day.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Dee. Hot again here, too. What a stupid year we have had. And the twice-daily watering is really something, isn’t it? Here too to get things going. See you soon!

  5. TomW says:

    Indeed. Seems every year I manage to balance out forgetting or missing a planting date with doing something new and different that is a great succes.

  6. Dee Langston says:

    Thanks Margaret. I went to our local garden center yesterday for rescue, half-off, end-of-the-season perennials (since they’ll be back next year, who cares if they are ugly?) Plenty of pansies there, but I figured they’d die of heat stroke if I put any in the ground.

  7. Maggie Oster says:

    From several years of trialing fall-planted spinach varieties in my Zone 6 (near Louisville, KY) garden, I’ve found Viroflay (a French heirloom available from gourmetseed.com) and Oriental Giant (a hybrid available from reneesegarden.com and territorial-seed.com) overwinter the best and have great flavor. Trials were grown in raised beds with low hoops covered either with fabric row covers or plastic.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Anne Marie — and both of those sound like great flavor combinations. I make a crustless spinach “pie” with feta, eggs, onion and oil that is one of my favorite easy suppers. See you soon again, I hope.

  8. Jean says:

    Where are the “actual” spinach recipes that are listed above? I followed the link for the spinach scones; but only found more pictures and no recipes. I would love to try them.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Jean. I see the recipes when I scroll down on SimmerTillDone’s post about the spinach scones…at this url. They’re under all the photos, quite a way down the page.

  9. Rose says:

    I live in Virginia (zone 7) and grow spinach in containers. Can I sow the seeds in late fall and overwinter them so they can sprout in early spring?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Gladys. I suppose my point of view on this is that the older and more established they get (in the flat or cellpack) the more potential for a setback upon transplant. Really young things seem to transplant without “shock” more easily, in general.

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