If eating more nutritious foods is one of your gardening goals, you will want to get busy growing spinach, a cool-season veggie to raise in spring and fall. Loaded with vitamins and minerals, spinach is considered a superfood because of its many health benefits. Eating spinach regularly may help normalize blood sugar levels, prevent cancer, promote stronger bones, and undo the damage done to our circulatory systems when we eat too many fats. All this in a delicious, high fiber package!
Sowing and Growing Spinach
You can start your spring spinach as seedlings, direct-sown seeds, or both. I start seeds indoors for my earliest planting, because in late winter spinach seeds germinate better inside where it’s warm. The ideal germination temperature for spinach is 70°F (21°C). I direct-sow a second planting later in spring, when the soil has warmed enough to support steady germination.
To improve my germination luck, I prime spinach seeds a few days before planting them. This process involves soaking the seeds in room temperature water overnight, then letting them dry at room temperature for a day or two. When spinach seeds are primed in this way, the first stage of germination takes place under warm, clean conditions, so the seeds are much faster to sprout after they are planted in the garden.
Cool-season weeds must be plucked out to keep them from overrunning the bed, but spinach seedlings are sturdy little plants. For new gardeners, one of the great things about growing spinach is being about to distinguish the seedlings from weeds. Spinach seedlings throw out long, strappy seedling leaves that make them easy to identify when a new bed is bursting with unknown green things.
The biological processes that release soil-borne nutrients to plants proceed slowly in cold soil, so early spinach often benefits from a thorough drench with an organic, water-soluble plant food such as fish emulsion. Fertilize your spinach after the seedlings are well established and growing rapidly. You should see a fast response, because well fed plants produce larger, more robust leaves than struggling ones. If your plants stay spindly despite good care, you will need to rule out boron deficiency as a possible problem.
At a well-stocked produce market, you might choose between baby spinach, larger leaf spinach known as teenage spinach, or mature plants tied into a bundle. As gardeners, the biggest payoff comes when baby leaves are left intact so the plants can quickly grow into robust, almost-mature teens. You can then harvest spinach by pinching off the best two or three leaves from each plant every five days or so for up to two weeks.
Chill your leaf spinach immediately to limit the loss of vitamin C, which is always highest in freshly harvested spinach. Be sure to wash your spinach thoroughly in cool water before eating it, taking care to remove soil that often clings to the undersides of the leaves.
Understanding Spinach Bolting
For spinach, long days that last more than 14 hours are a trigger to switch from vegetative to reproductive growth. When this happens, new leaves become smaller and more pointed, and the center of the plant rises and elongates into a stalk – a process called bolting. Pollen-producing male plants bolt a few days ahead of seed-bearing females, and in both cases it is best to pull up and compost the plants. The leaves of bolting spinach plants taste bitter, and once spinach bolting begins, the plants will not go back to producing tasty new leaves.
Studies have shown that giving spinach an early start in cool soil may delay bolting, so don’t worry about setting out seedlings while the soil is still chilly. You will want to have plenty of crisp leaves to enjoy in strawberry-gilded salads, one of the peak experiences to expect when you get into growing spinach.
Will eating plenty of fresh spinach pump up your muscles like it did for Popeye? Probably not, but growing a spring crop of spinach will maximize your garden’s nutritional output of delicious, garden-fresh greens.