Produce Profile: Spinach Isn’t Just For Popeye

Spinach has a reputation as a nutritional powerhouse of "comic" proportions. Give this cool-weather crop a try to pack more into your early spring diet.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: ailinder/Pixabay

Spinach may be the most celebrated green vegetable in cartoon history, thanks to Popeye and Olive Oyl.

Whether it owes its popularity to its pop-culture fame, to its versatility in the kitchen or to its nutritional benefits can be debated. Its tenuous place in a regular-season garden certainly is not what made it famous.

In the garden, spinach is a cool-weather friend, overwintering to 25 degrees F and even colder with the help of row cover or a low tunnel. At the farmers market and among local-foods chefs, a small-scale grower could sell the leafy green all year long at seemingly any price.

If only it were as easy to grow as it is to sell!

When should you sow spinach? Not in the spring, it turns out.

Types of Spinach

When we talk about “spinach” in the U.S., we almost always mean Spinacia oleracea, the tender-leaved relative of beets and Swiss chard. Within this species, there are dozens of varieties—even heirloom ones—with different leaf types: flat, savoy (curly) and semi-savoy.

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The flat-leafed spinach is easier to clean for cooking, though the savoy may be more flavorful and more durable.

Apart from what we think of as standard plant, there are other spinaches grown the world over. New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) and Malabar spinach (Basella alba) are two to know. They look a lot like spinach-spinach, but they’re both heat tolerant. They have thicker leaves—the word mucilaginous comes to mind—and I prefer eating them cooked rather than raw.

How to Grow

Spinach does best when direct-seeded into deep, nitrogen-rich soil. The plant develops a surprisingly strong taproot—probably what helps it to mine the nutrients it’s known for—so it likes deep soil.

As mentioned above, spinach wants cooler weather. Plant it in the fall, if you can, and you’ll be harvesting in late winter and early spring, right around the time you’re desperate for fresh green food.

You can also plant in early spring, about a month before last frost, but your harvest window is much shorter this time of year, before the flea beetles, aphids and leaf miners emerge and the days get too warm.

Spinach will grow slower during the short days of winter and early spring, but it’s less likely to bolt then. Don’t fret if you don’t see the production you think you should. After a nice stretch of rain followed by sunshine, you’ll wonder what you’re supposed to do with all the leaves you have!

Check out this recipe for spanakopita!

How to Eat

I’m one of those weird people who admit that spinach isn’t my all-time-favorite leafy green. (Spoiler alert: It’s kale.)

Still, there’s no shortage of ways that I love to eat the leafy greens. I didn’t spend a month at a bakery in Greece without inhaling my share of spanakopita, after all. (See above for a recipe.)

There are plenty of reasons to want to eat spinach, besides its versatility and flavor. Back to that Popeye fella’s nutritional prowess, the vegetable is high in iron, zinc, antioxidants, and Vitamins A and C.

Blending spinach into soup, making it the star of your springtime salad, and layering it into a lasagna (with your home-canned tomatoes, of course) are all wonderful ways to work this nutritious green into your diet.

My favorite way to eat spinach is mixed in to a coconut curry—spinach, eggplant, sweet potato and chickpea curry is my favorite homemade curry, to be exact. If smoothies are your thing, spinach is a great addition.

In times of surplus, blanch, chop and freeze the leaves so you can add them to your cooked meals year-round.

While spinach may not be a beginner’s crop because of its finicky cool-weather nature, it’s worth a shot in your second or third year of serious gardening. Having this nutrient-dense food waiting outside your door as winter drags on can make that time of year less dreadful.

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