Getting a Good Stand of Garden Spinach

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Spinach seedlings, protected from the wind

A lush bed of garden spinach will bring joy to any gardener, but spinach planting dreams don’t always come true. In my experience, the biggest challenge comes up front, when you want spinach seeds to germinate all at once, like little soldiers. Sometimes I get uniform sprouting, with rabbit-eared seedlings at just the right spacing for easy thinning. But more often I’ll see gaps in rows, and spotty germination often plagues my indoor flats, too. Whether I’m starting a few spinach seeds early indoors or sowing them in the garden in spring and fall, I’ve learned to watch every detail in order to get garden spinach off to a strong start.

Transplanting Myths

First let me back up a bit to address starting spinach seeds indoors, which is well worth doing in later winter. Contrary to proclamations that spinach is untransplantable, I find that young seedlings with two true leaves are as easy to transplant as any veggie as long as you do everything you can to prevent stress to your little spinach plants. In my garden, this means having a rich bed ready and waiting, covered with a plastic tunnel, glass window frame, or other protective enclosure. Using spinach seedlings helps stretch the spring season, so that I’m harvesting garden-fresh spinach before the last frost passes.

Spinach intercropped with lettuce
Spinach intercropped with lettuce

Although spinach germination can proceed (very slowly) at temperatures near freezing, spinach seeds sprout best at 60-68°F (15-20°C) – yet another reason to start your first garden spinach of the year indoors. As the weather warms in spring, you can direct-sow a second planting. In spring I like to alternate spinach seed with pinches of faster-growing lettuce, which can be pulled as the spinach needs more room to grow. You can also alternate rows of spinach with onions, which make good garden companions. Upright onions don’t crowd the spinach, and the spinach helps shade out weeds between rows of onions.

Priming Spinach Seeds

Many references say that spinach seed is good for three years, but I won’t stake the success of a planting on a reference chart. I draw the line at two years, which means I buy one or two packets of fresh spinach seeds every spring, and compost seeds more than two years old.

Even so, I have found tremendous variability in the germination rates of spinach seed from various sources, or it could be me. Like all seeds, spinach germination takes place in three stages: soaking up moisture, growing new cells inside the seed, and finally the emergence of the radicle, or sprout. Several studies have shown that spinach germination rates are higher and more uniform when the second stage is prolonged a bit, in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, before the seeds move on to a full sprout.

Spinach seedlings

Scientists call this process "priming," and it’s easy to do at home. About a week before planting, soak spinach seeds in room temperature water for 24 hours. Place the wet seeds on a paper towel, and allow to dry at room temperature for a day or two. Shift the seeds to an airtight container, and keep in a cool place for up to a week. The primed seeds will retain enough moisture to complete the first two stages of germination. After planting, primed spinach seeds germinate in only 5 days, compared to 10 or more for seeds straight out of the packet.

Getting a good stand comes down to spoiling your garden spinach, and the same tricks to promote spinach germination in spring come in handy in the fall. Spinach loses its enthusiasm for sprouting at temperatures over 75°F (23°C), so I prime a few seeds before starting them indoors in August, and direct-sow a winter crop when temperatures cool down in autumn. For a vegetable that’s as delicious, versatile and nutritious as garden spinach, four plantings a year is not too many.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"A question rather than a comment. Could you explain , please, why after 'priming'the spinach seed you don't sow them straight away?"
dorothy smith on Friday 21 January 2011
"does priming work for other varieties of vegetables?"
Kay on Friday 21 January 2011
"I'm hard-headed, so I'm going to try to plant these without all the pampering first. When that fails, I will try your way, lol! I am making a little 4x6 raised bed just for my spinach. I have 3 different kinds, so I am going to mix the seeds up and scatter them over the plot, water as needed, and see if my "chaos" gardening works. I'll let ya know...."
FarmsteadMama on Saturday 22 January 2011
"Good questions! When primed commerically (using various chemicals to insure sterility), primed seeds are good for 30 days. Those done at home should be planted within a week. Think of priming as partial pre-sprouting. It works well with carrots, too. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 22 January 2011
"Dorothy, I don't think I addressed your question clearly. You could sow the pre-soaked seeds if you wanted, but when you allow the soaked seeds to partially dry, the germination process slowly continues within the seed. This slow pace suits spinach well, carrots too. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 22 January 2011
"Barbara, Very useful. I've been growing spinach for 60 years and I've regularly experienced spasmodic germination. Also, I was taught that spinach is not transplantable - I'll certainly give your method a try."
Doug Beard on Saturday 22 January 2011
"Thank you for your reply and I shall certainly try this method for spinach and carrots as you suggest."
dorothy smith on Sunday 23 January 2011
"I did exactly what was recommended and had over 80% germination! Wow! So I have 2 shoots in each little peat pot. Should I trim one? Thanks so much. They're under a grow light now. Any more recommendations for transplanting?"
Rebecca Knight on Sunday 27 March 2011
"I've tried this and it certianly does work. Last year my germination rate was appalling - only approx. 30 plants from the traditional method. This year, from 265 seeds (planted in toilet rolls in a cold glas house) I've got over 300 plants. Magic. "
doug beard on Sunday 27 March 2011
"Thanks for the tips! I'm willing to try just about anything to get my spinach to sprout, right now. It certainly seems to take more care than any of my other vegetables."
Lironah on Friday 20 May 2011
"I have been trying to figure out why my spinach seeds would not germinate. You gave me the answer and I am following your advice...hopefully I will have a good crop this fall. Thank you sooo much!"
Linda on Tuesday 6 September 2011
"I did not have luck with my spinach at all this year. Do you think that I could still plant in September (MN) now that is is starting to get cold?"
Cindy M on Tuesday 6 September 2011
"Cindy, check your GrowVeg planner, but I think the only sure route at this point would be to plant the spinach, get it up and growing, and then cover it with a cold frame through winter. A protected frame or very low tunnel will have a similar effect to that of good snow cover. The spinach will be ready to pick much earlier in spring."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 6 September 2011
"Aaaaaah!!!! So THAT'?S the secret!!! I can't wait to get re-started. There's a big bowl of spinach/artichoke dip in my future yet!@%!! Thank you Ms. Pleasant."
Andy on Wednesday 30 November 2011
"I primed my spinach seeds and have one sprouting already after only about 2.5 days! Waiting on the carrots. This is great! Thank you so much for the tip So easy!!"
Julie on Thursday 23 February 2012
"I am new to growing spinach and, not realizing it was such a lover of cold, planted it in early June in the middle of a hot dry spell (oops). Temperatures have been in the 80s for weeks and the nights are balmy as well. Despite the conditions, my little spinach friends germinated at quite an impressive rate! I have been misting the sprouts several times a day to keep them cool, and a nearby tree shades them during the hottest part of the day. Still, I'm afraid they are going to bolt like crazy. Is there anything I can do to keep them cool enough that I may get some baby greens despite my poor choice of planting time?"
Carisa on Wednesday 20 June 2012
"Please answer this question. When I buy spinach seeds, I find totally different looking seeds. I am assuming that one seed looking as such versus another seed looking as such will tell you which seeds will produce and which will not. Is this not the case? Please let me know, or if you do not know where can I find the answer."
EH on Friday 10 August 2012
"Barbara, I like your thoughts. However, I have a couple of questions. Does the pH of the soaking water make any difference? My tap water is alkaline, about 7.6 pH. Should I alter the pH to about 6.5? You suggest that I let the seeds dry a little on a paper towel for a day or two. When I place them in an air tight container should the seeds still be on the paper towel that they dried on and then put seeds and paper towel(s) inside of a "Zip Lock" bag? Thanks for your help! Jerry on Sat., March 9, 2013 "
Jerry Meyer on Sunday 10 March 2013
"Hi Barbara, Doing a little me research, I read that soaking the seeds in H2O2 and NaOCl worked better than just water. The chemicals did this by infusing a higher amount of Oxygen into the seed during the soaking phase and causing the seed to germinate quicker and improved the germinating percentage. What is your thoughts on this? Thanks Jerry on Sat., March 9, 2013"
Jerry Meyer on Sunday 10 March 2013
"You are right, in that various simple salts can penetrate seed coats faster than plain water. However, the difference to a home gardener would be small, with several new opportunities to make mistakes. Besides, I think the biggest benefit in priming spinach seeds is triggering the slow growth of the embryo...On your water question, I would use distilled water for working with seeds and sensitive seedlings grown in small containers. The lower the soil volume, the more likely you would see nutritional deficiences after the first few waterings with alkaline water. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 11 March 2013
"Thanks Barbara for the great seed start/growing tips. I've been trying to grow spinach for years and finally got great results by seeding indoors and transplanting the last 2 years. This year the indoor seeding resulted in very spotty germination---so am trying "priming" technique you described. "
Bill Redmond on Wednesday 20 March 2013
"I'm planting a spinach seed roll. Green side up or down?"
Char on Thursday 16 May 2013
"By cool environment, do you mean refrigerating the seeds or more like where we store potatoes? Would a refrigeration period be effective in priming seeds? My spinach has always been pathetic with something like 20% yield at best. That is sad for me. I don't like thinning as the plants I am thinning are still plants that I could be eating. I know with spinach you can certainly use the plants you've erradicated in salads and cooking, however I'm still not thrilled about it. Also, distilled water is devoid of ions. Spring water or just using the alkaline water to see what happens might be a better choice for priming. "
Maggie on Tuesday 28 May 2013
"Maggie, I think the refrigerator would be so cold that the seeds would not continue to progress, as happens when they get wet and slowly almost-dry before being planted. Keeping spinach seeds at room temp (65-70F) for the priming process has worked well for me."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 29 May 2013
"Would you do this with lettuce seeds as well, or just spinach?"
Amber K. on Tuesday 9 July 2013
"Lettuce seeds are fast and sure germinators as long as they are fresh and temperatures are not too warm or too cold. The best way to get a good stand of garden lettuce is to use a fresh packet of seeds."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 9 July 2013
"After priming my spinach seeds, planting them indoors, and seeing them sprout, I would like to move them outside to the garden still in their plastic cups because I have a light issue in my home. After the plant has a couple pairs of leaves, I will remove them from their plastic cups and plant into the garden soil. Would this be okay? The light inside my home is not nearly as bright as the sun. It may be that the 8' florescent bulbs are not emitting enough light and/or the plastic covers which are not truly "clear" are shading too much of the already diminished light. "
Jerry Meyer on Tuesday 27 August 2013
"Jerry, this time of year I keep seedlings indoors only long enough to get them to sprout. Then I move them outdoors to a shady spot, like underneath a patio chair or table, for a couple of days. Because the soil is warm, you can go ahead and transplant seedlings to the garden when they are quite small provided they are ready for sun. Using shade covers for a day or two, for ex upturned flower pots, will insure a high survival rate after transplanting. "
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 28 August 2013
"Thank you, Barbara."
Jerry Meyer on Wednesday 28 August 2013
"Great article, totally what I wanted to find."
Hollingsworth on Friday 30 August 2013
"Nice article, thanks Barb ! I hope this "priming" process will still allow the seed to be dry enough to be planted by my Earthway planter? When I soak my spinach or beets (then dry it in a sieve with a hair dryer just before planting), it swells so that it won't work with the seed plate suggested for beets. So I have to use the small bean plate which plants way too much, or it would be too much if it germinated 50%. Carrot seeds work in the plate either way, plus they are way cheaper per 100 ft row anyway. "
Edwin Martin on Thursday 14 November 2013
"Edwin, as long as you don't hold the primed, dry seeds more than a few days, they should be fine in your seed planter as long as you treat them gently. Once primed, there is a live embryo growing inside the seeds."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 15 November 2013
"why would my spinach sprout just fall over?"
Katherine on Sunday 2 August 2015
"In the garden, spinach sprouts can be girdled by cutworms or other small insects, or the roots can become infected with fungi that cause them to rot."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 3 August 2015
"share experiences, mealybug pest and moth most often affects the spinach plant, so for the most plants should be treated well."
aries alfajri on Monday 11 January 2016
"How long does it take to spinach to harvest? "
Tania on Friday 13 January 2017
"Tania, depending on variety and how you harvest it (leaf-by-leaf versus whole-plant), it takes approximately 40-52 days."
Schrodie on Thursday 2 March 2017
"I started out as described, then veered off course -- with very happy results. I set thirty Astro Spinach seeds from Fedco to soak, and noticed the next day that they already looked like they were about to germinate. So I put them in a damp paper towel in an open plastic bag and kept them under light. Two days later half of them had visibly sprouted, so I transplanted them all to peat pots. The next day, some were already coming up. Now it's four days after that, and eight days after the seeds were first put to soak, and twenty one out of thirty (70%) have sprouted and are growing. General conditions are in a cool (60-65 degrees basement), under 'daylight' fluorescents, misted daily and sitting in about a quarter inch water,"
Colin Wright on Thursday 16 January 2020
"two summers now and my spinach germinated fine, even in blistering heat. My probrolem is that the plants grow really slowly and remain very small. Just generally, slow growth and small plants are a persistent problem throughout my garden. Everything is getting plenty of sun and i'm pretty sure I don't overwater. Any ideas?"
mike on Friday 18 September 2020
"Thank you for this advice. I often have poor germination with seed I have saved, so will try this."
Christine Wilson on Thursday 7 October 2021
"Thnx for tips"
Shabana on Saturday 22 June 2024

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