Besides being a welcome hit of green, the impressive nutritional profile of spinach makes it a crop to grow in abundance. But while it’s often seen as a spring vegetable, it’s also tasty when a good fall frost concentrates the sugars in its leaves. I have vivid memories of unusually late harvests at our CSA, when the spinach was so sweet I just gobbled it plain as I picked it.
Whenever you plant spinach in your garden, consider these tips for enhancing your crop throughout the gardening season.
Choosing which varieties of spinach to grow
Spinach comes in three main types:
Savoy spinach has crinkly leaves and grows closer to the ground than other types, so it’s more likely to get splashed by mud and is more difficult to clean than smooth-leaf types. It’s also more cold-tolerant and disease-resistant, with an almost chewy texture thanks to thicker leaves.
Flat, smooth leaf spinach varieties are more common to Western states. As noted above, their smooth texture makes for faster cleaning after harvest. They are also extra tender.
Semi-savoy types are a nice compromise, with more upright plants and less crinkly leaves than savoy as well as good disease and bolt resistance in most varieties.
When choosing a spinach variety, pick according to your priorities, whether that’s ease of cleaning, disease resistance, or timing of harvests. A number of varieties will have “winter” in their name to indicate especially good cold tolerance. If you’re planting in spring or live in a warm climate, choose bolt-resistant varieties. While most cold-season spinach won’t be plagued by pests or disease, some regions have problems with downy mildew and several varieties have been bred for resistance.
Some varieties to try:
- Bloomsdale is one of the most commonly available varieties. A savoy type, it performs well in cool weather but is quick to bolt. A good choice for fall or if you plant your seeds very early in spring.
- Tyee and Teton are semi-savoy varieties bred to resist downy mildew and bolting. (My CSA farmer tells me that the memorably sweet spinach I enjoyed at her farm was Tyee.)
- Space is an often recommended, smooth-leaf variety resistant to downy mildew. Corvair is a common smooth-leaf variety available from organic seed suppliers.
Spinach alternatives for warm weather
In warm weather, it’s wise to try alternatives to spinach. You might consider growing other plants that can work like spinach in the kitchen, such as one of the following.
- Amaranth and lambsquarters can be used in place of spinach, as can perpetual spinach chard (Beta vulgaris ssp cicla). The young leaves of these plants are the closest in texture and flavor.
- New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) works for fresh uses, but doesn’t hold up well to cooking.
- Malabar spinach (Basella rubra) is a perennial vine that thrives in heat.
Planting and growing spinach
Spinach prefers well-drained, rich soil with a neutral pH. Add compost or composted manure to your beds to give your spinach the nutrients it needs to thrive. Spinach forms a long taproot, so it’s helpful to loosen the soil down to a foot or so.
Final spacing of plants should be 4-6” apart, since crowding can cause plants to grow poorly, bolt sooner, and pick up diseases more easily in wet conditions. Some seed packets recommend 12” spacing, so check the directions for the seeds you choose.
Spinach is a cool weather crop, so in warmer climates, it’s typically grown in fall or winter. In northern climates, you can plant in early spring then again in the fall. When winter runs long, it can be a challenge to get your spinach seeds sown in time, as longer, warmer days will cause spinach to bolt. Plant a slow-bolt variety as early as possible to allow the six weeks needed from sowing to harvesting. Spring harvests will likely be smaller than fall ones.
If you want to give spring spinach plenty of time to produce before the weather warms, prepare your bed in the fall and you’ll be able to plant earlier in spring. Covering the spot with black plastic to warm it and protect it from late snowfall can also ready the soil earlier.
Because fall crops need to be planted while soil temperatures are warmer than spinach seeds like, germination rates are likely to be significantly lower, so sow more heavily in your late-summer planting.
Spinach grows best in full sun, but will also produce in light shade, making it a good plant for less sunny areas of the garden.
Troubleshooting for your spinach crop
Extend your growing season
Planting spinach behind taller crops will protect it from the heat of summer. In many areas of the country, spinach can grow through winter with protection like a cold frame, portable garden cloche, or greenhouse. Growth may slow or stop altogether if temperatures get too low, but it will resume when temperatures climb again in spring.
Mulch the surrounding soil
Rotate your crops
Don’t plant spinach where closely related beets and chard grew recently, because they harbor the same diseases spinach is prone to. Additionally, plant away from cucumbers, which can transmit blight spread by aphids.
Watch for pests
Leaf miners can damage your spinach crop. Remove and destroy any infested leaves to prevent leaf miners from multiplying and doing further damage. Planting radishes near your spinach can help by attracting the miners to radish leaves without affecting the radishes you’re growing. If leaf miners are a significant problem, you can use row covers or other natural pest control methods.
Harvesting and preserving spinach
When to harvest
You can start harvesting spinach when leaves are still small if you’re too eager to wait for larger leaves. Cut the whole plant and allow it to regrow, or harvest larger leaves and let the smaller ones continue to develop. Always harvest early in the day, when leaves retain the most moisture for more succulent salads.
Cleaning and preparation
If you’re harvesting savoy or semi-savoy varieties, you’ll want to take extra care removing dirt (and bugs). Giving your spinach a water bath to remove soil and insects is a good idea. I like to give this spinach rinse water and soil particles to other plants rather than dump those nutrients down the drain.
Processing and storage
Fresh spinach stores best when it’s dried well and kept in an airtight container. Some people wrap it in a dishtowel to keep moisture from spoiling it prematurely.
Spinach also freezes well. If you have an overabundance, freeze a little to add green goodness to your winter cooking. Most people steam or blanch spinach before freezing, but since you’ll be trying to get out the water before freezing, I find it makes more sense to prepare it without additional liquid, which also saves some labor.
Heat excess spinach in a dry pan until it wilts then squeeze it to remove an astonishing amount of water. (I usually save it for soup-making to preserve all those nutrients and add a little sweetness.) Put the resulting compact spinach balls in the freezer and take them out to toss in soups and other cooked dishes.
You can also dehydrate spinach for a healthy homemade greens powder.
Spinach is a very nutritious green, high in iron, fiber, and numerous vitamins and minerals. It’s also relatively high in oxalates, which can bind to minerals in food and make them less available, but cooking greatly reduces the oxalate levels. If you’re on a low-oxalate diet, you may want to limit your intake of raw spinach.
Grow plentiful spinach this season, and enjoy this delicious vegetable year-round!
Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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