Spinach by any other name
Most of us use the terms ‘spinach’ and ‘Swiss chard’ interchangeably when referring to our favourite green leafy vegetable. There is a difference though, in taste as well as growth habit. Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a cool-season crop while Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) belongs to the beet family and can be grown throughout the year. What most of us eat as spinach is usually Swiss chard, because it is more easily obtainable, being easier to grow, heat tolerant and more productive. But what I like about spinach is that it is a speciality crop, and the taste is more delicate than Swiss chard. The spinach variety that is most commonly grown in South Africa is ‘Viroflay’. It has medium-green leaves, and we grow it as a winter crop. The Swiss chard varieties are ‘Fordhook Giant’, which has dark green leaves and broad, white midribs; ‘Lucullus’, which has long, light green leaves, and ‘Bright Lights’, which has red, yellow or orange midrib and dark green leaves. There is also the indigenous spinach, marogo (Amaranthus), and the variety commonly found in seed packet form is ‘Imbuya’. It can be sown from spring to late summer and the leaves are picked when the plants are 20 – 25cm tall.
Growing your own:
Swiss chard and spinach are among the easiest vegetables to grow. They germinate easily, don’t take up much space and are easy to harvest. But they are hungry feeders and regular feeding is the secret dislike slimy probably spinach spinach.for success if you want to harvest on a continual basis.
• Before planting, prepare and enrich the soil with generous amounts of organics as well as bonemeal for root development.
• Both vegetables can be sown in situ. Swiss chard can also be sown in seed trays as it transplants better than spinach.
• Keep the soil moist during germination (which takes about five days).
• Seedlings should be spaced, or thinned out, to about 20cm apart.
• Feed with a liquid fertiliser about two weeks after germination and at least once a month after that – more frequently if you are harvesting regularly.
• Spinach needs plenty of sunshine to grow.
• Plant in fertile, well-composted soil that drains well. Add bonemeal or Vita-Grow 2:3:2 (16).
• Loosen soil to a deeper level than for Swiss chard, because spinach has a longer taproot. Make sure the soil is fine and free of clumps for germination success.
• Sow directly into the ground, as seedlings’ taproots can be damaged during transplanting. Thinning out is necessary.
• Feed regularly with a nitrogen-rich fertiliser, especially after picking the leaves. Compost tea is an excellent home-made feed.
One of the most compelling reasons for growing your own spinach is that it wilts so quickly, and shop-bought produce can’t match the quality of freshly picked leaves. Leaves should be ready for picking about eight weeks after sowing. They can be cut or twisted off at the base of the plant. I pick two or three of the largest leaves from each plant. Some people cut off all the leaves, but it takes a long time for the plant to recover. An alternative is to leave the outer ring of leaves as protection against the sun and harvest the second tier, making sure that you don’t affect the crown. If there is a delay between picking and cooking, put the leaves in a bucket of water to keep them fresh. When the growth is no longer vigorous and the leaves start to flop the picking season is over and the plants should be dug out and put on the compost heap.
- Always cook spinach with the lid off. By keeping the lid on you trap the sulphur that is released with cooking, and that is the reason for the bad smell.
- Don’t overcook spinach – just bring it to wilting point. It looks fresher and tastes better if it is still bright green. It is also healthier, despite the belief that spinach needs to be cooked to release iron and other nutrients.
- Boil spinach in very salty water (as salty as sea water) to preserve its flavour.
- The bitterness comes from the white rib. Double fold the leaf and cut out the white rib completely before cooking. This part can be added to soups and stews or put on the compost heap.
- The nicest way to prepare spinach is to wilt it in a little olive oil over a medium heat. Add salt and pepper and a little lemon juice.
- Another way to prepare spinach is to bring very salty water to the boil, add the spinach for 12 seconds, then take it out and put it into cold water to stop the cooking process.
Remove it, dress it with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper.
- Purée spinach and use it as a base for green sauces. It can also be used to bulk up a coriander or basil pesto
- Raw spinach doesn’t freeze well; rather blanch it and then freeze it.
Good for you
Spinach eaters can bask in the knowledge that their favourite veggie contains vitamins C and K, minerals such as iron, manganese, potassium, and magnesium, as well as calcium, folic acid, carotene, plant protein and flavenoids that act as anti-oxidants. This makes it a powerful anti-cancer food, specifically protecting against digestive tract cancer.
‘Viroflay’ is the most commonly grown variety, and is easily available in seed packets. It has large, deep-green, tender leaves and is a gourmet French heirloom that was developed before 1866. It can grow into quite a substantial plant, so proper spacing between plants (20 cm) is advisable. Baby spinach ‘Dash’ is also available in seed packets.