Growing spinach for your family at home is a simple way to get more greens in your diet, lower your foodprint, and teach your kids about gardening at the same time. Early spring is the perfect time to start thinking about planting yours.
I have to admit, it wasn’t until I was grown up that I started enjoying spinach. As a kid, I remember looking at the bowl of cooked spinach (from a frozen package) with despair, just dreading having to eat some of it. I don’t remember ever being served fresh spinach while growing up, but to be fair to my parents, there’s a lot of hazy spots in my childhood memories, so it may have happened.
Working at a local food co-op exposed me to a great variety of fresh food, especially locally grown produce, and I found that a big bowl of baby spinach was a tasty and nutritious lunch. Later, while volunteering at a local CSA farm, I got hooked on eating the fresh baby leaves straight off the plant. And now, whenever there’s fresh baby spinach, it always reminds me of spring and the smell of rich soil under the sun.
When we began gardening for food for our family, one of the first things we tried to grow was salad greens, starting with a baby greens mix (mesclun mix) and then head lettuce and spinach. And while head lettuce is satisfying to grow, it takes a lot longer than growing microgreens (baby salad greens), so over the last few years we’ve been focusing on our greens bed and doing succession plantings all summer long. Growing spinach is not tough in most regions, and it’s the perfect vegetable to start in early spring!
Growing Spinach at Home:
Spinach loves cool weather, so you can start preparing the soil for it in early spring/late winter. Loosen the soil in your beds with a garden fork down to about 10″ deep, working in some finished compost at the same time. As early as six weeks before your average last frost date, start your seeds inside or directly in the soil under a cold frame. You’ll need to check the plant hardiness zone map to find out what’s best for your area.
When sowing your seeds, space them in full sun, a couple of inches apart in the row, and plant about half an inch deep. Spinach grown for baby greens can be planted closer together, but for full sized plants, make each row no closer than six inches apart. Keep the surface moist until the seeds have germinated and have grown their first true leaves. (These are generic planting instructions, so follow the ones on your seed packet for that variety of spinach.)
Sow the next succession of seeds between a week and two weeks after the first ones germinate, and continue to plant more at intervals through the spring for fresh spinach all season long. Once each planting is established, mulch between rows to help keep the soil cool and moist. Don’t put the mulch directly up against the baby plants – they’ll have a better chance of surviving both slugs and rot that way.
Thin the rows once the seeds are up and have a few leaves, making sure the plants are at least six inches apart for full sized spinach, or three inches for baby spinach. Eat all the ones you have to pull out while thinning – they’re spinach sprouts!
For baby spinach, harvest a few leaves from each plant, starting as early as a month after sowing. Pinch off the bigger leaves right at the base of the plant, leaving the smallest leaves. They taste great right off the plant, so eat them immediately or fill a bowl for a salad.
Once the leaves start getting large, you can either harvest the outer leaves regularly, or wait until the whole head is big and cut the entire plant. I recommend doing both – harvest half or more as leaves, and leave some alone to grow into full sized bunches. But watch out, as you might be surprised by how much spinach you get if you let all the bunches mature.
Rinse the leaves or the bunches in cool water and store in the fridge if you aren’t going to eat them right away. For the most nutrition and best flavor, don’t store spinach for more than a couple of days before eating it.
During the hottest part of summer, spinach will bolt, which means that it sends up a tall flower stalk and wants to produce seed. The leaves tend to be tougher and smaller when that happens, so you can pull up all of those plants for your compost pile, unless you have open pollinated varieties and wish to save the seeds. In that case, let some of them flower and go to seed, harvesting the seeds once they are mature.
Harvest the bunches after the first frost for the sweetest taste, and use row covers to extend the harvest through the early winter. With a heavy mulch, you can still harvest fresh spinach well into the season.
And more spinach planting:
About a month before the first fall frost date in your area, plant a couple of rows of winter spinach in an area protected from harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Before the first frost, cover them with a thick blanket of mulch and some row covering or a cold frame (try using fall leaves and covering the whole thing with some chicken wire to hold the mulch in place). Those plants will supply you with your first greens of the year, as they will continue their growth very early in the spring, before anything else is growing.
As with most vegetables, don’t plant spinach in the same areas every year – rotate the beds so that nothing in the chard family (like beets) gets planted in the same bed that spinach was last growing (and vice versa). This keeps any diseases or insect infestations from getting out of control.
Growing spinach with kids is fun, because it can be sown early in the spring, when the little people are dying to get outside, and it grows very fast. This makes it a perfect candidate for a child’s own garden, and once they learn that they can pull off the young leaves and eat them, you might have a hard time stopping them from devouring the whole row!
Image: woodleywonderworks at Flickr