Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I Am What I Am

Kind of makes your little heart go pitty-pat, don't it.
OK. So spinach isn't exactly the most exciting vegetable in your book, but it is coming in by the bucketful in my garden this spring. This is the best spinach harvest I have ever had.
The two 10-foot rows producing my current spinach harvest were planted in early September last year. We got a little spinach to supplement our much larger lettuce harvest, but the spinach picking was modest.
One row of spinach spent the winter under a plastic tunnel, which was changed to a "frost blanket" (a heavy row cover) about late February. The other row simply had a little hay thrown over it.
Winter spinach in February.
In early March the spinach picking began and it just keeps going. Five times I've cut spinach -- two and a half pounds of it last week -- and it looks like it is ready to cut again.
Spinach is notorious for its short harvests because it wants to bolt, send up flower stalks and set seed, every time you look at it. But this has been an almost perfect spinach spring, a little on the cool side, except for a few days when it almost hit 90. (It's Kansas. Spring is always fickle.)
Heat causes spinach to bolt. So do long days. Once the length of daylight exceeds 14 hours, you can pretty much kiss your spinach goodbye. Once it begins to bolt, there's not much you can do but cut the whole plant and use what you've got. However, the few spinach plants that started bolting because of those hot days seem to have been slowed by the cool cloudy weather that has followed.
Other things you can do to slow the bolting of spinach:
-- Feed it. Spinach is a hungry plant, prefering high doses of nitrogen. Side dressing it every two weeks with compost and or manure, or use a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer, such as manure tea or fish emulsion, especially after a heavy harvest. One gardening book proposes that it is "almost impossible to overfeed" spinach.
-- Don't crowd it. Crowding puts stress on the spinach plants as they compete for light and nutrients. Who isn't stressed when it's overcrowded. Common wisdom notes that spinach plants should be thinned 4-6 inches apart. Others say that 8-10 inches is an even better spacing. I am notoriously lax in the thinning department. The rule of thumb is that the leaves of mature plants should barely overlap. Leaving extra space between plants is particularly important for winter crops, when sunlight is already at a premium.
-- Keep it moist. You don't want soggy soil, but keeping your spinach well watered will slow its bolting by reducing stress on the plant. Stress reduction is a good thing.
-- Use a variety tagged as "long-standing," such as the ubiquitous Bloomsdale Long-Standing. These have been selected and bred to resist bolting longer than others.

Another view of my current spinach crop, alongside the
spring-planted kale.
Most people plant their spinach in rows, but block planting works well with spinach and other leafy vegetables, as well as some root vegetables. Some say that block planting is a more efficient use of space than rows. Simple scatter you spinach seed over a "block" of garden, say 6x6 feet, then thin the young plants so they stand 9 inches apart.
Don't worry that you are wasting the little plants you've thinned out. Impress you friends by serving the thinnings as gourmet "microgreens." You can do that with thinnings of lettuce and other leaf vegetables, as well as radishes and beets.

Since the spinach is ready to cut again while I still have three large bags of it in the fridge, I will need to start having spinach salad for lunch, too, as well as in my lettuce/spinach salads in the evenings. Unlike Popeye, I prefer my spinach fresh, unless it is in an Indian curry, such as saag paneer. So freezing the spinach is out of the question.

March-planted spinach not too far from harvest.
My favorite way to do spinach salad is tossed with bits of orange and raisins, and a few toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds -- maybe drizzled with a raspberry vinagrette. But I don't have raspberries, so I will try making a rhubarb vinagrette. I still have rhubarb puree in the freezer from last year, and it's almost time to start harvesting it again. When the puree thaws, I will add freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little honey (heat the puree to mix the honey in). This is excellent on toast. As a salad dressing, I will thin it with a little cider or wine vinegar and/or water.
April-planted spinach has a long way to go.
In a few more weeks I will start harvesting spinach planted in early March, along with lettuce planted at the same time. I can't even hope to get as much spinach from this spring-planted crop as from the fall-planted spinach, since the heat and length of days will send it into bolting frenzy. But the Bloomsdale should stand up well, especially if I give it some shade. I just hope all this spinach doesn't give me Popeye's forearms.

No comments: