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By Skip Richter,
Contributing Editor

Had I known back when I was a wee child that one day I would be writing an article lauding the wonderful vegetable called spinach and encouraging folks to grow it, I would have no doubt been convinced that at some point in my life to come, I must have taken a morbid turn to the dark side. Folks, I (like most kids) considered this stuff to be an evil conspiracy against childhood and an attempt by the parents of earth to render the taste buds of children forever damaged beyond repair. I also suspected that cooked spinach was a scheme on the part of my parents to cash in on my life insurance policy.

Time has indeed changed my opinion. They say as we age our taste buds change. But I think it is more than that. My childhood memories of spinach are of a heap of gray/green stuff on my plate, which had been cooked to death leaving only the vilest remnants of taste and, according to those promoting the idea of me eating it, invisible ingredients that built character and strength. Even the fact that Popeye ate it was unconvincing. I mean after all, have you taken a good look at Popeye. No thanks!

Now my thoughts of spinach are of properly cooked side dishes, fresh salads, and wonderful soups, quiches and soufflés. I swear it is not the same vegetable! But more on that later. Let's take a look at this unique vegetable and its place in our Texas gardens.

Spinach History
Spinach originated in the area of Persia (now Iran). It traveled to China soon after the time of Christ and then to Spain and other parts of Europe. From the early days of our country it was a part of American gardens.

Here in Texas spinach became a very popular garden vegetable. By the early 1900s, the Austin area had a significant commercial spinach industry. It was then discovered that the Winter Garden region (southwest of San Antonio) was a prime location for commercial spinach production. By the 1950s, Texas had become a not just national, but world leader in spinach production, with processed spinach far outweighing fresh market production. 

The town of Crystal City lays claim to the title of "Spinach Capitol of the World." A handsome statue of the king of spinach, Popeye himself, stands outside city hall. For those of you trivia buffs, there is also a Popeye statue in Chester, Ill., birthplace of the cartoon character's creator, Elzie Segar. Other statues may be found in Alma, Ark., deep in the heart of that state's spinach growing area. Those folks also claim to be the "Spinach Capitol of the World," but they are sorely mistaken.

While Texas still produces a huge quantity of processed spinach, California has brought the vegetable to the culinary forefront by creating and supplying a fresh market product including baby spinach leaves and blends with other salad vegetables. Texas growers and researchers are not taking this laying down however, as new programs are underway in cooperation with Arkansas growers to develop new varieties and to develop techniques to package and market fresh Texas spinach. The child in me knows this is indeed a good move!

It's Good For You
Those words are the kiss of death to any intentions to create affection for a dish in the heart of a finicky child. Spinach is actually quite nutritious. However not in the way once thought. It does not contain high levels of iron although it does stomp its wimpy salad partner lettuce in even iron content. Spinach does however contain beta carotene (precursor to vitamin A), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), thiamin (vitamin B-1), riboflavin (vitamin B-2), niacin, and folic acid, as well as respectable amounts of calcium, potassium, and protein. Many of these vitamins and nutrients help fight various types of cancer and promote good cardiovascular health.

Spinach, like some other dark leafy green vegetables, also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which research has indicated may help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts. If you want a healthy green in your diet or are looking for fresh vegetables to keep you well nourished and fit, spinach certainly fits the bill. 

Growing Great Spinach
Spinach is not the easiest of vegetables to grow. It is one of the few that prefer a neutral to high pH. It needs dependable soil moisture but will not tolerate soggy soil conditions.

If you garden in the eastern parts of the state where soils tend toward the acidic range, some lime can help bring the levels up to spinach's liking. Have your soil tested to determine how much lime is needed. For a general guide, about 5 pounds of agricultural grade lime per 100 square feet is a good place to start if you know your soil is on the acid side.

Sandy soils need some compost mixed in to increase their ability to hold water and nutrients. Spinach has a fairly limited root system and will benefit from an addition of quality compost or manure. Clay soils can also use some compost mixed in deeply. Raised beds may be needed on clay soils and any areas with marginal drainage to keep the roots up out of soggy conditions.

To maximize garden space, plant several rows along or across wide topped raised beds. Space rows of plants 8 to 10 inches apart across or down the bed. Stagger plantings by 10 to 14 days to hedge your bet and to keep you in a good harvest all winter.

While spinach loves full sun, it will grow in considerable shade. In fact, I like to plant my spinach in a part sun to bright shade location near a deciduous tree. This helps cool the soil and get the seedlings off to a good start. By late fall the tree leaves are dropping, to allow the sunlight through to the growing plants.

Finicky Seeds
Spinach is most commonly direct seeded into the garden. If the soil is warm they will not germinate properly. This is where most Texas gardeners go wrong in establishing a planting of spinach. The soil needs to be at around 75 degrees or lower for good germination. Again sun vs. shade can make a big difference at any time of the year. Placing a shade cloth structure above the planting row can help improve germination when conditions are marginal. 

As a general guide, you can begin planting spinach about two months before the first fall frost in your area. In central portions of the state we begin planting in about mid-September, although those early stands are often hit and miss. Northern and southern areas of the state may begin a month earlier or later respectively. Just remember that weather is a major factor in determining how early you can plant and shady areas may be ready a bit earlier. 

If you will soak seeds in a glass of water in the refrigerator for 24 hours prior to planting, they will begin to take up water and initiate the chemical processes that lead to germination. Water the soil in the seed row prior to planting to soak it deeply. Then plant the seeds about 1/4 inch deep. A rowcover fabric placed over the row can help hold in soil moisture and allow the seedlings to get off to a good start. Just remember, don't allow them to dry out. Seeds should germinate in about 7 to 10 days. When seedlings are about 2 inches tall, thin them out to about 6 inches apart. 

Fall vs. Spring
Spinach definitely prefers the fall garden over the spring garden. The onset of hot weather in spring causes plants to bolt or send up a seed stalk, and quality plummets. This makes for a very short spring season in most of the state, although in north Texas spring stands may be acceptable. If you want to try spring planting make sure to choose a variety touted as bolt resistant and get it in as early as you can, providing cold protection from the late winter blasts.

Fall planting allows for harvest during cool weather and top quality spinach. In the southern two-thirds of the state, you can carry the fall plants on through winter and into spring. With some protection during cold nights you can even continue planting on into late winter. Spinach is quite cold hardy and established plants can take temps down into the low 20s. If you'll purchase a lightweight rowcover fabric you can keep a patch going all winter.

Transplants
I have sometimes started spinach seeds indoors to get a bit of a jump on the season. This works fine especially if your plans are for a very small patch of spinach. Transplants are also great for gardeners wanting to grow spinach in containers or in ornamental beds. Spinach does quite well in containers and as green filler in ornamental beds. Choose a container that has a diameter of at least eight inches for best results. 

To grow your own transplants use a quality seed starting mix. Wet the mix well prior to planting. Then cover seeds about one-quarter inch deep and lightly mist the tray again. Place the tray in a clear plastic bag (such as a dry cleaners bag) to hold in moisture until seedlings sprout. Then remove the bag and move the tray to a bright window or a bright shady outdoor location. 

When seedlings have been up and growing for a week or two, begin to move them gradually into more sun. Fertilize them with a soluble fertilizer at the low constant feed rate. Give them another week to acclimate and grow stronger then you can transplant them into the garden. Make sure to keep the soil moist to help them survive the transition.

Fertilizing Spinach
A soil test is the best way to plan your garden fertilizing, but generalizations are helpful as a starting point. Assuming your soil is of moderate to good nutrient content your first fertilizer application can be made about two weeks after the plants are thinned (or about a month after planting). 

Blends of 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 ratio products work well as a pre-plant application. If the nitrogen content (the first number) of the product you choose is around 6 to 8, which is typical for natural blends, then apply 3 cups per 100 square feet of garden bed. If you are using a synthetic blend of the above ratios (most range from 15 to 21 percent nitrogen) then apply 1 to 1.5 cups per 100 square feet of garden bed.

Spread the fertilizer evenly around the plants and water it in well. You can also lightly "scratch" it into the surface with a garden tool, but take care not to dig deeply as spinach is very shallow rooted. Fish emulsion, seaweed, and cottonseed meal also make suitable fertilizers for your spinach crop. Continue to water as needed to keep the soil moist and encourage vigorous growth. 

Varieties For Texas
Spinach varieties are grouped into 3 types: smooth (or flat) leaved, savoyed (the $2 word for crinkled), and semi-savoyed. Smooth or flat types are used primarily for canning while the savoyed and semi-savoyed are best for fresh eating. 

There are many varieties of spinach that will grow in Texas. I have tried numerous ones in trials over the years and found most to do quite well if growing conditions are right. However, diseases are a limiting factor in spinach growing here in the south. Some of the old great varieties have fallen from favor as they just are too prone to disease problems.

Among the best currently recommended varieties for Texas gardens are Bloomsdale, Tyee, Fall Green, Melody, Hybrid 7 and Samish.

Pests & Diseases
Spinach is not immune to pest and disease problems. There are several fungal diseases that can deal a heavy blow depending on the part of Texas where you garden. The best way to deal with a disease problem is to plant resistant varieties. Thankfully we now have several that offer varying degrees of resistance to most diseases. 

Insects can also be a problem. There are the general leaf feeding caterpillars and beetles. These can be "blocked out" by growing the crop beneath a lightweight rowcover fabric. They can also be controlled with a variety of low toxicity sprays. I have not had much of a problem with these chewing pests in my gardens and don't get too worked up over a hole or two in the leaves.

Aphids can also be a problem. The rowcover works if applied early. Pesticides are pretty much a wash on these pests as getting good coverage in the crinkled leaves is about impossible. Again, in my garden beneficials seem to keep the aphids in line and I just have not yet suffered a significant crop loss to them. 

Garden To Kitchen
Depending on the variety, the plants will be ready to begin harvesting in 6 to 8 weeks. If you have a large patch or a succession of plantings, the simplest harvest method is to remove entire plants. I usually plant a smaller number of plants and simply remove the oldest leaves allowing the rest of the plant to continue to grow and produce.

Soil and grit tends to cling to the leaves making washing it free a challenge. I find it best to immerse them in a sink or bowl of cold water and swirl them around a bit to remove sand and grit. You may need to repeat the process once or twice until there is no longer grit in the bottom of the bowl. Pat the leaves dry on a towel, place in a plastic bag or sealed bowl, and store in the refrigerator to keep turgid and fresh. 

Spinach is a wonderfully versatile vegetable. While the traditional boiled blob of spinach is still popular, I recommend you consider using it in one of a variety of ways. Fresh, it provides a substitute or complement for lettuce in salads or on sandwiches. 

Spinach is a great addition to soups, baked goods like quiche, bread and a variety of other recipes. To enhance spinach dishes consider using it in combination with butter, cream, eggs, cheese, bacon, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper and soy sauces. 

If you want to cook it as a side dish, keep in mind that spinach is about 90 percent water. The water that clings to the leaves after washing is all you need to cook it. You can also steam the leaves. Whatever technique you choose, don't overcook it. This destroys the texture and transforms this wonderfully tasty vegetable into the nasty blob that still makes my inner child wince! 

The term "a la Florentine" means "in the style of Florence," and in culinary terms refers to dishes which contain spinach, especially eggs, fish and white meat. Spinach season is just around the corner here in Texas. Last year the National Garden Bureau designated 2002 as "The Year of The Spinach."

Why not try a variety or two in your fall and winter garden this year. It is well worth its space. Then try a tasty new way of preparing this healthy vegetable.

When you serve it to the family, you need not call it spinach. Just tell the kids that it is soup, salad or whatever "a la Florentine." Who knows, maybe they'll love it!

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