In the Garden:
Lower South
October, 2004
Regional Report

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Spinach can thrive all winter with only a lightweight row cover fabric to protect it on especially cold nights.

Fall Gardening "a la Florentine"

Had I known back when I was a wee child that one day I would be writing an article lauding the wonder 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 would take a morbid turn to the dark side. 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. My childhood memories of spinach are of a heap of grey/green stuff on my plate that 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.

Now my thoughts of spinach are of properly cooked side dishes, fresh salads and wonderful soups, quiches and souffles. I am especially fond of fresh spinach in salads or on sandwiches. The term "a la Florentine" means "in the style of Florence," and in culinary terms it refers to dishes that contain spinach and (most often) eggs, fish and white meat.

Spinach contains vitamins and nutrients that can help fight various types of cancer and promote good cardiovascular health, such as 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. Like some other leafy, dark green vegetables, it also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which research has indicated may help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts.

Grow Your Own
Convinced that you can't live without a spinach patch in your garden this year? Good! Here are a few tips for success. Spinach needs well-drained soil and prefers a neutral to high pH. Have your soil tested to determine whether some lime is needed to bring up the pH. As 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 acidic side.

Spinach varieties are grouped into three 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. Ask your county extension office about which varieties do best in your area.

Space rows of plants 8 to 10 inches apart across the width or along the length of a wide bed. Spinach loves full sun but will grow in considerable shade. Most gardeners sow directly in the garden, but if the soil is warm the seeds will not germinate properly. A shade cloth suspended over the planting row will improve germination.

I prefer to start my own transplants in a cool, bright but shady area and then move them to the garden later. 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.

Spinach does best when planted in mid to late fall. With some protection during cold nights, you can carry the fall plants on through winter and into spring. Work 1 to 2 cups of 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 ratio fertilizer into the planting bed prior to planting. A few weeks after planting, add another cup of fertilizer and lightly scratch it into the surface with a garden tool, taking 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.

Spinach is a wonderfully versatile vegetable. Fresh leaves provide 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. 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 also can 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!

Spinach season is here, so try a variety or two in your fall and winter garden. 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 something "a la Florentine." Who knows, maybe they'll love it!


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