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By Rick Gush, Urban Farm contributor

Friday, December 23, 2011


Photo by Rick Gush

Spinach is as easy to grow as lettuce, even here in Italy.

Growing good spinach is a bit like growing lettuce: A nice, fast growth period, when the weather is just right, is what produces the best crops. There’s no hope for plantings that have started to go to seed; this can happen if the weather is too hot, the length of day is too long or if the seedlings are allowed to dry too much or otherwise stunted. The answer seems to be in making several plantings throughout the year, enjoying the times that the crop does come in well, and not getting too upset about the inevitable percentage of crop failures.

Spinach grows best in cool weather, so most people plant spinach in the very early spring and try to get a crop up and harvested before the weather turns hot. Some people like to plant spinach in late summer and let it mature in the cooler, shorter days of fall.

Here in Rapallo, Italy, I can do either spring or fall spinach planting, and I also have the blessing of being able to overwinter plants most years. I find that the older, overwintered plants are by far the heaviest producers, and when things start warming up in spring, overwintered spinach plants will produce much bigger and many more leaves.

Although commercial growers most often grow spinach on deep, alluvial river-bottom soil (one can see that sort of very fine grit on the unwashed leaves of freshly harvested spinach at the market), spinach is fairly tolerant of a wide range of soils. My strange mix of yellow mud and rocks manages to produce fine spinach crops.

Spinach doesn’t like too much acid, which is the case in some of my beds, where I’ve been extremely zealous about adding organic material. Although adding lime is the classsic advice for neutralizing acid soils, I like to use eggshells and wood ashes to get the same effect.

Spinach is a heavy feeder, and as one would expect for a green leaf crop, it uses a lot of nitrogen. I mix compost and manure into the soil, and then use a liquid fertilizer once a week on the plants. One problem with mixing in a lot of organic material is that creates a situation that is ideal for the growth of the diseases such as Pythium, which can be a problem for young seedlings. I’ve found that if I prepare a bed and leave it alone for a month before seeding, then the balance of soil organisms will re-establish and the ever-present Pythium won’t be a serious problem. Some people think pre-covering the planting bed with black plastic has a similar calming effect. When I’m cultivating the bed prior to planting, I try to dig extra deep where the spinach will be planted. While lettuce has a fairly shallow and finely fibrous root system, spinach plants have much thicker and longer tap roots, so a deeper soil is preferred.

Spinach is one of the few crops that I like to direct-seed into the growing bed. I soak the seeds overnight in a nutritious solution such as SuperThrive or compost tea.

It used to be common advice that people should plant a succession of plantings to ensure a long harvest season. That’s a good idea, but way more work. I prefer to just plant it all in one shot, and if there is a large excess, the spinach greens can be lightly steamed and then frozen for later use.

Read more of Rick's Favorite Crops »

Give us your opinion on Spinach.
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Rick, I envy your growing season there in Italy. We are into the dormant season here in the midwest. However the temperatures are unseasonably warm for this time of the year. I'm wondering just how it will affect the 2012 gardening season. I planted a fall salad green mix for the first time this last fall. spinach was one of the plants in the mix. The mix did quite well until the 9 degree temperature finally backened the plants. It was quite a success for my first attempt at fall gardening. The carrots and broccoli .... not so much.

Have a great Italian New Year in the garden.
David, Omaha, NE
Posted: 1/1/2012 6:33:26 AM
I've had pretty good luck with several varieties of spinach here in the desert. I start it indoors in peat pots and then set them out early in the year. I can usually get two cuttings before it gets too hot to taste good.

I have found it grows best where it gets partial shade during the afternoon and plenty of water. I am trying several types of New Zealand spinach that are supposed to be more heat tolerant this year. I'm hoping I can get further into the year before it goes to seed.
Bruce, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 12/30/2011 7:55:13 AM

About the Blogger

Rick Gush

Rick Gush
Rick Gush has long been a staunch organic gardener. While a student at the University of California at Davis he worked at local tomato and sugar beet farms and continued in the agricultural and horticultural industries for many years. A career move in the 1990s led him to design computer games, but no matter how much of a techie he’s become, gardening and farming remain his principal passions.

In 2000, Rick moved to Italy, where he writes to you about his cliff garden and other experiences in Italian urban agriculture.

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