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Spinacia oleracea

My favourite nickname for spinach is the Prince of Vegetables, from Persia (now Iran), whence it originated two thousand years ago. The dark green leaves are synonymous with good health and can be eaten either raw or cooked. Plants grow slowly through winter in temperate regions, when the leaves become sweet.

  • Spinach is in the same subfamily, Chenopodioideae, as beetroot and chard, and, like them, is biennial. It is commonly grown for a few months only, but longer is possible!

Leaf water content is 91%, compared to 95% in lettuce – for green leaves, the 9% dry matter is high and helps them to survive freezing. Spinach has 4% carbohydrate and 3% protein, and is famous for its iron content. However, it also contains enough oxalates to reduce the body’s ability to absorb iron.

All good reasons to be wary of nutrition charts that list percentages, as though they are all readily available. Microbes are never listed, yet they play a part in how minerals are absorbed in the gut.

  • Homegrown spinach gives us these microbes as well as all the other percentages you read about.
10th May – these Medania spinach leaves from homesaved seed are still growing new leaves at nine months old
Summer sowing of spinach – late summer is the best time to sow for the longest period of harvest, with a few leaves even in winter when they are more valuable
Mid-May in the hungry gap – harvests are exciting at this time of year and spinach keeps cropping through the whole period; the broccoli is from overwintered plants

Harvest period

  • Days from seed to first harvest: 45
  • Harvest period depends massively on the sowing date – it is only four weeks from sowing in mid-spring.
  • Best climate is almost any except tropical, where I would grow Malabar spinach – see ‘Other types of spinach’ below.
Overwintered Medania spinach at the spring equinox – this was sown in August and we have picked plus tidied the plants
26th May harvest – spring-sown spinach leaves from plants that will flower within two weeks; you can see the leaves turning paler with more pointed ends, a sign that flowering will happen quite soon

Why grow them

Spinach plants can be productive, and for a longer period than is often realised. Spinach has an unfair reputation for going to flower, but that is the fault of gardeners not of the spinach plant. Too often they sow in the spring, just before its flowering season. Seed packet advice is often not clear about this.

  • Best time to sow is late summer, and from that one sowing you can enjoy up to eight months of picking leaves.
  • During cold weather, the leaves turn noticeably sweeter. By early spring, in particular, some leaves can be sugary.

Spinach is an efficient plant to have in your garden for repeat picking, and is excellent to eat both raw and cooked. I love it raw, as part of a mixed salad.

A Small Garden harvest on 29th October – radicchio sown in early July, Medania spinach sown on 10th August, and fennel sown on 26th July
A trug filled with vegetables from the Small Garden in December, including the August-sown spinach
Picking spinach leaves from overwintered plants – the leaves are already large by April

Pattern of growth

Spinach leaves are soft and plants look tender; however, they are hardy and tolerate winter weather well, including gales and heavy rain. The worst damage I have ever seen in winter was from hail.

  • The natural period of growth starts with germination during late summer. Plants establish through autumn, to survive winter with strong roots and usually not many leaves.
  • Spinach is hardy to cold and stands temperatures as low as -15 °C/5 °F for sure, probably lower and depending on wind, plus any snow cover helps insulate plants and their roots.
  • Regrowth resumes in spring and until flowering initiates in late spring. Stems appear in early summer, with clusters of seeds.

Flowers are barely visible, pale yellow, and the resulting seed clusters need time to dry on the stems for up to a month.

Frozen Medania spinach – 26th November 2010
Unfrozen Medania, in the afternoon of the same day
The same spinach in early December, after thirteen consecutive frosts averaging -5 °C/23 °F, the coldest being -7 °C/19 °F

Suitable for containers/shade?

Spinach grows well in shade, just make sure there aren’t any slugs lurking nearby.

It is also well suited to growing in containers, especially when you are growing it for salad leaves. Plants then never grow too large, because of regular picking, not cutting.

Space as close as 10 cm/4 in. Even in a container, this allows enough root run for plants to crop for several months, especially from a sowing in late summer.

Medania spinach sown in modules in February, then transplanted to a box of compost; now seen in May
22nd April – Helmar tulips, atriplex orache and overwintered spring onions

Other types of spinach

The word spinach is used for many plants growing leaves that can be cooked to eat. Here are some examples:

Malabar or Ceylon spinach, Basella alba, is my favourite of these, but needs heat to grow – ideally days above 30 °C/86 °F. I had some harvests in a polytunnel.

  • Sow in early summer and give support; pick the leaves through summer and serve them like spinach.
  • The flavour and texture are similar to normal spinach, and an option is raw leaves chopped into salads, for a citrus bite.

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) can grow new leaves in midsummer when true spinach is flowering. This plant is in the fig-marigold family, a clue to the flavour of its leaves, which is unusual for a vegetable and certainly not like spinach.

Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus) has the nickname Lincolnshire spinach; I am unsure why. Its triangular leaves are slightly succulent, but in taste and texture feel to me like eating paper! Then the plant flowers readily and can become a weed, growing everywhere unless you keep removing the flower stems.

Orache (Atriplex) and saltbush (Atriplex patula) are in the large Amaranthaceae family, which includes weeds such as fathen (Chenopodium album) – this is edible too. You can cook orache or eat leaves raw – the texture is dry and the flavour is alright, but not excellent. Its chief attribute is its deep colour, especially on the undersides of leaves.

Tree spinach grows gorgeous shoots, with a pink colouring that rubs onto your skin when picking. We use them to colour salads but not for their flavour, which is similar to orache. From sowing in early spring, plants can reach 1.8 m/6 ft high. Best remove them in early autumn, or they drop seeds widely.

20th August – Malabar or Ceylon climbing spinach in the polytunnel; this was sown two months earlier and transplanted
The same Malabar spinach at the end of September – the yellowing leaves are mainly due to a lack of warmth
Some very pretty tree spinach in August, showing the tender shoots


Medania is, in my experience, the all-rounder you need for harvests both early and late. The leaves are tender and quite dark, though sometimes also lighter, and with good flavour.

F1 hybrids come and go in terms of availability. Two that have stood the test of time are Missouri and Emilia. I value them mostly for spring harvests, from sowing very early when their vigour can make a difference, in comparison to Medania.

Giant Winter is best sown in late summer and grows pointed and pale green leaves, but with no extra hardiness that I have noticed.

Sometimes listed with spinach in seed catalogues is beet or perpetual spinach – this is one to avoid if you want true spinach because it is a chard – see Lesson 11, Course 3A. This lesson is all about true spinach.

2nd September – Red Kuri squash are all ready to harvest
The same day after the squash harvest, we watered the bed and immediately transplanted spinach; it cropped until the following May
28th April – spinach plants, now eight and a half months since sown
sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems


This is quick and simple – with your hand around each plant, rotate the main stem until it breaks off at soil level. This leaves most roots in the ground and you are then ready either to plant again, or to spread compost before planting again.

How spinach looks when it’s starting to flower in late May; this was sown nine and a half months ago
Easy to grow tree spinach – a weed in concrete! They pop up everywhere if you allow plants to seed
23rd April – overwintered spinach will soon rise to flower; I interplanted with Florence fennel a month earlier

Follow with

Spinach finishes by early summer. Spring sowings are almost a ‘catch crop’, allowing the main dish to follow.

There is time to transplant almost any vegetable as a second planting, from kale and cabbage to leeks and beetroot. Beetroot is the same family as spinach but I have not found any problem with that.