Growing spinach is comparatively easy, as long as you choose the right varieties and give your plants the very best start. Spinach is delicious – providing you don’t let it get too bitter. It’s versatile, too – young leaves are a tasty addition to salad and the more mature leaves make a great leafy green. We also use spinach leaves in our homemade dog food, which Oscar can’t get enough of. Spinach is cold-hardy, although it does struggle in very hot weather. However, with a bit of clever seed selection, the right planting location, and the right care, you can grow spinach year-round. It’s a great, nutritious leafy green that you can harvest even during the hungry season! To make sure your spinach gets off to the best possible start and gives you the biggest yield, we’ve put together this ultimate guide to planting, growing, and harvesting spinach.
Best Spinach Varieties to Plant
There are a huge number of spinach cultivars to choose from, and which ones you choose will depend on your planting zone, your soil type, and whether you want to grow all year round. Also, it’s good to ask your neighbors which varieties they find perform best, as there may be some cultivars that you might otherwise overlook which outperform the ones which look best on paper. Frequently, homesteaders actually develop their own cultivars – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – that they harvest seed from each year. They’ll harvest seed from the strongest plants from that year’s harvest, use those for the next sowing, select the strongest plants from that harvest for seed, sow them, and so on, until they’ve got a reliable cultivar that is more resistant to the more common local pests and diseases. However, for those of you who don’t have friendly, spinach-growing, homesteading neighbors, let’s take a look at some of our recommended spinach cultivars.
Giant Noble Spinach
Giant Noble spinach is a large, hardy heirloom cultivar that was first introduced in 1926. The large plants have a spread of 25 inches and are slow to turn bitter, letting you enjoy the crop for longer. These substantial spinach plants produce large, thick, crisp leaves that are lovely in salads or lightly steamed. They also perform surprisingly well when frozen. Like many other spinach cultivars, Giant Noble will bolt quicker than you’d like if it’s in full sun in very hot climates, so to combat this, try harvesting when the leaves are still very young, or plant in partial shade for hot season plants.
Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach
Introduced in 1925, Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach is an heirloom cultivar that produces huge numbers of large, thick, savoy-type leaves. Dark green and vigorous, this heirloom spinach does well in salads when young and, when mature, makes a great, nutritious leafy green lightly steamed. It can also be canned and frozen, and makes an interesting healthy pizza topping. It’s a large, spreading variety that’s slow to bolt.
Merlo Nero Spinach
Merlo Nero spinach is a savoy-type cultivar that produces large, spreading plants. It’s a popular choice because it’s resistant to many common diseases, although can bolt in the summer if not grown in shade or harvested young. This Italian spinach cultivar is still pretty rare in the US, but it’s a great one to grow thanks to its tasty, notably tender leaves. If you’re looking for a deep flavor and a high yield, Merlo Nero spinach, with its deepest green leaves, may be the right choice.
Perpetual spinach isn’t true spinach. It’s actually part of the beet family, hence it’s also known as spinach beet. However, it produces leaves that are indistinguishable in flavor, type, and performance. And, it’s resistant to heat and dry conditions, meaning it doesn’t bolt easily. Plus, perpetual spinach, as the name suggests, just keeps on growing. You can harvest leaves and more will grow and, unless you have particularly hard winters, you’ll get at least two seasons from these plants before they begin to bolt. Prolific and hardy, perpetual spinach is suitable for year-round crops.
Malabar spinach is another variety that isn’t technically a spinach – but it produces large yields of spinach-like leafy greens and performs well in heat, without bolting. A tropical plant, Malabar spinach doesn’t tolerate cold well, but it is favored by those with hot summers and/or particularly dry soil, as it continues to grow without turning bitter and bolting. Interestingly, this heat-resistant spinach is a vining type and can be trained on a frame, trellis, or wires, making it a good option where floor space is limited or when you want to add height and texture in an edible landscape.
New Zealand Spinach
Another leafy green rather than true spinach, New Zealand spinach is a heat-loving perennial grown in moderate and cooler climates as a tender annual. This spinach-alike thrives in full sun without bolting. It is low-growing and spreads up to 3 feet and produces large numbers of small, triangular or ovular leaves up to 4 inches long. You can cut the fleshy leaves and more will grow until the first frosts.
How to Grow Spinach
Depending on your climate, I’d suggest sowing a couple of different varieties to make sure you can comfortably grow and harvest spinach year-round. Plus, growing multiple cultivars lets you experiment, find which ones perform best in your area, and which ones you like the flavor of most. And, of course, you can even develop your own strain as you cross cultivars and select seed to save and regrow.
Planning Your Spinach Sowings
Obviously it depends where you live, but you want to plan your sowings so that you’ve got beautiful tender leaves to crop all year round – even through winter. Plan your first indoor sowings roughly 8 weeks before the last frost and your first direct sowings six weeks before the last frost. I am of course only talking about true spinach and perpetual spinach varieties – the hot weather plants won’t survive the cold. Basically, once you can reasonably easily work the soil, you can plant your first crop of true spinach or perpetual spinach. True spinach performs best and delivers the highest yield with cool weather. For successional sowing, plant new seeds every three to four weeks so that you’re not faced with an overwhelming glut or you run out early in the season. Remember to plant the right cultivars for hot weather in late spring and into early summer. Then switch to final sowings of perpetual spinach in late summer, followed by fall plantings of true spinach roughly six weeks before the first frost.
Where to Plant Spinach
Spinach likes things cool, so true spinach is a great choice to plant in the shade of taller plants, in a shady spot by a building, or near a tree – anywhere your sun-loving plants won’t grow well.
Planting Spinach Indoors
Now, some people claim that you can’t start spinach indoors, but that’s not true. The problem is that people leave the seedlings in the grow house too long, so they get leggy, or they don’t harden the seedlings off properly, and as soon as they plant them out, they fall over and die. Correct conditions and correct handling are essential. Having said that, spinach is ridiculously easy to start indoors. Sow seeds in trays or pots of high-quality, damp potting compost. Plant seeds 1/2-inch deep and cover with fine, moistened compost. Spinach is fast-growing, so you can expect to see seedlings appear in five to nine days. I’d only sow my early plantings indoors, because spinach seeds don’t like particularly hot conditions, so germination rate drops dramatically in high temperatures like those in a greenhouse or polytunnel. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, dig plenty of nitrogen-rich compost into the rows for your spinach, then place plants 6 to 12 inches apart, and leave 12 inches between rows, too.
Planting Spinach Outdoors
Preparing your soil is key. Because spinach develops a taproot, for the best yield and sturdiest plants, loosen the soil around a foot deep where you plan to plant. Spinach likes plenty of nitrogen, so dig in plenty of organic matter, rotted manure, or compost, then plant the seeds in the enriched soil, roughly half an inch deep, and no more than one seed an inch, before covering with a little fine compost. Keep the rows moist to encourage germination. For hot weather sowings of true spinach, make sure you keep the soil as cool as possible by watering twice daily and planting in the shade of taller plants.
If germination goes well, your plants will be a little bit crowded, but don’t be too quick to thin out. Wait until the seedlings are mature enough to make tasty additions to your salad, then thin the plants to one every 6 to 12 inches. Instead of discarding the thinnings, nip off the root and use the rest of the plant in your salads or sandwiches.
Watering Spinach Plants
Spinach roots aren’t terribly efficient, and for the best growth, your spinach needs regular light soakings throughout the week rather than a single, intense soak once weekly. Keep the soil moist but not drenched. This helps to keep the soil cooler, reducing the risk of bolt, and helps ensure the roots, and therefore the plants, have a ready supply of water to maintain healthy growth. You can help maintain appropriate moisture levels in the soil by mulching around the base of the plants.
Fertilizing Spinach Plants
To give spinach the best possible start, I like to dig a rich compost (I make my own, but if you need to buy yours, I strongly suggest you get a peat-free blend) and some balanced fertilizer into the trench before I plant. You can find out how to make free natural fertilizers here. Once germinated, the spinach plants will produce maximum yield if you add a liquid fertilizer once every two to three weeks. If you don’t want to use a liquid feed, you can side-dress with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Here at Real Self-Sufficiency, we only use natural fertilizer we make at home, and we get great results.
Protecting Your Spinach In Cold Weather
True spinach and perpetual spinach are reasonably cold-hardy, but they need protecting from frosts, so if the temperature plummets or the forecast shows a frost heading your way, be sure to cover them with fleece. This will prolong your harvest.
Caring for Spinach Plants
It’s very easy to disturb spinach roots, particularly before they reach maturity. Therefore, you have to be particularly careful when you’re weeding. Mulching with straw is a good option, as it suppresses weeds while retaining moisture. Don’t over-cultivate the soil around your plants. Instead, if you must weed, pull them by hand while they’re very small, or cut bigger weeds off at the base. As with all plants, keeping them healthy reduces the risk of pests and diseases.
Harvesting spinach is easy, but don’t overdo it. Spinach doesn’t keep well once it’s picked, so only harvest what you need for the next day or two. Only harvest the whole lot if you’re prepared to can or freeze it, or cook it into a large batch of something for later use. In our household, it gets used almost daily in salads as well as in all kinds of dinner recipes. I generally only harvest large quantities when I’m batch-cooking for the dog, making batches of tomato sauce, or getting ready to preserve it. Take the young leaves by cutting at their base with a pair of scissors. If you’re careful, you can nip the leaves off with your fingernails, but be careful not to pull or tug against the plant, as you’ll disturb its roots and could damage the stem. The larger leaves have a deeper flavor and are a bit more substantial–well-suited to cooking and preserving. Let the plants mature, but harvest before they start to run to seed. You can take the larger outer leaves with scissors and let the inner ones mature, or just take the whole plant at once.
How to Save Spinach Seed
As long as you’re not growing sterile plants or F1 hybrids, it’s pretty easy to save spinach seed. When you harvest the last of your crop, leave a couple of your healthiest-looking plants and let them bolt. As the plant matures, it will shoot up long flower heads which will bloom, then die back as seed heads form. Be patient. Wait until the plant dries out. Once it’s dry or very close to it, remove the seed heads and pop them in a brown paper bag. Tie the top with string and hang it in a cool, dry place for a couple of weeks. Next, remove the heads from the bag and rub the dry seeds into a bowl. You’ll probably find that you get pieces of leaves, remnants of flowers, and other debris in the mix. Separate the seed from the debris by standing outside with two bowls when there’s a bit of a breeze. Hold the bowl with the seed at head height and pour it into the other bowl which you hold below at about waist height. The seeds are heavier than the rest of the debris, so they should fall into the bowl, while little bits of flowers and leaves will blow away. Repeat this motion, pouring from one bowl to another, until the majority of the debris is gone. Then store the seeds in an envelope or similar in a dry, dark, cool place, ready for your next sowing.
Common Spinach Plant Problems
Humans aren’t the only ones who like spinach – a variety of birds, animals, and insects will jump at the chance to munch their way through the tender leaves. There are also a number of diseases that spinach is prone too.
One of the most common problems with spinach is bolting. Bolt occurs when the plants get too hot and too dry. True spinach is the most susceptible. Perpetual spinach and alternatives like Malabar and New Zealand are less prone, but don’t fair so well in cold weather. Bolting is essentially when your plants run to seed. Obviously, if you’re saving seed, you want at least some of your plants to bolt so you’ll have seed for next year. But when the plants bolt, the leaves become bitter, so you don’t want all of your plants to run to seed too early, or you’ll have no usable crop.
Common Spinach Diseases
Downy mildew is caused by a fungus-like organism and attack foliage. It appears as discolored blotchy patches on the upper side of the leaves, usually yellow, pale green, or brown. On the underside of the leaves, you’ll find gray or white mold-like growths. In severe case, foliage withers and dies and plant is stunted and without vigor. It’s a disease that thrives in wet conditions, where leaves remain wet for prolonged periods, and it’s spread by airborne spores. There’s no cure, chemical or natural. If you find a plant with a minor infection, pick off the diseased leaves. If the infection is severe, lift the whole plant and burn it or bury it deeply, well away from susceptible plants. To reduce the risk of infection, make sure there’s plenty of space between plants and control weeds as best you can to promote good airflow and keep leaves dry.
Another disease caused fungi and fungi-like organisms. It’s much more common with seedlings planted undercover, with high levels of humidity or poor airflow. The pathogens infect the seedlings as they emerge from the soil, causing them to fall over and die. If occurring outdoors, it will most likely to appear in early spring, but, if the conditions are right, it can attack at any time of year. Your spinach plants can get pre-emergence damping off, where the seedlings fail to emerge, or post-emergence damping off, where the seedlings collapse, usually among a mass of white or off-white fungus. There is no control, chemical or otherwise. But you can reduce the risk of infection by discarding pots or trays where damping off has previously occurred, cleaning your grow house, greenhouse, or polytunnel in fall and again in early spring before you plant. Sow seeds thinly to allow for good airflow, don’t over-water, and avoid high humidity levels by airing your growing space thoroughly, opening doors, windows, and vents regularly so plenty of air circulates. If you notice any damping off occurring or whiteish fungus appearing, discard the affected seeds, pots, or cells. Do not compost affected plants or seeds, and do not reuse compost in which damping off has occurred, as the spores will still be present and will infiltrate your entire compost pile.
Cucumber Mosaic Virus
Cucumber mosaic virus, or CMV, is one of the most common garden viruses, attacking a variety of plants, including spinach. Symptoms include stunted growth, yellow patches, and yellow mottling on leaves. As the virus takes hold, the leaves curl downward and have a distorted shape. Like the other diseases mentioned here, CMV has no chemical or natural cures. The virus is spread via insects such as aphids, so finding natural ways to control aphids and other garden pests is an important step. It can also be transmitted on tools, your boots, and your fingers, so if you’ve been in contact with infected plants, clean your hands, boots, and tools thoroughly in hot, soapy water. Keep weeds down, too. Particularly species like chickweed and groundsel, which are prone to harboring cucumber mosaic virus.
Common Spinach Pests
Beet Leaf Miners
Beet leaf miners are flies that look like small house flies. Their larvae tunnel into the spinach leaves, eat the internal tissue, and create visible “mines”, which present as pale green or white trails. The leaves eventually wither and die. Early summer tends to be when the maggots cause the most damage, inhibiting the growth of younger plants and rendering the leaves of older plants inedible. While no chemical or natural pesticides are particularly effective against leaf miners, there are a number of companion planting options that can help you deter them. Additionally, you can grow your spinach under insect barrier netting. Crop rotation is also important in the control of beet leaf miners, as pupae may overwinter in the soil. Once the soil warms, the adults emerge, and if you haven’t rotated your crops, the adults will go right back to laying their larvae on your spinach.
Slugs and Snails
Slugs and snails adore spinach – whether it’s the seedlings or the mature plant. They’ll chomp through as many leaves as they possibly can and will decimate whole crops if not kept in check. There are many methods of controlling slugs and snails naturally, and you can read all about how to control slugs naturally here. Using companion planting, deterrents, and a mix of other techniques to control these pests without resorting to nasty chemical options.
Cutworms are moth caterpillars of quite a few different species. These caterpillars live in the soil and feed at the very bottom of plant stems. They’re ugly, grub-looking creatures, often with a dirty brown/gray hue, although sometimes pale green or off-white, largely depending on which species of moth they are, and what they’ve been feeding on. They have eight sets of legs–three pairs near the head and five pairs at the abdomen. As they feed, they eat right through the base of the plant, causing it to fall over, cut off at the base, hence the name, cutworm. I obviously do not promote chemical control, and there are plenty of natural pest control methods you can try. The key one is to keep weeds down and generally make conditions inhospitable, by cultivating the ground and keeping the soil moist. You can try rigging up irrigation systems and cover vulnerable plants with insect netting.
Wireworms are notorious as potato pests, but they feast on spinach roots, too. These little beasties are the larvae of click beetles and are yellowish-brown. They have six legs arranged in three pairs near the head. Wireworms devour seedlings, roots, and stems. They present the most problem in the ground recently cultivated from grass, but can strike even land cultivated for food crops for many years. A bad wireworm infestation will result in your spinach plants lacking vigor and eventually dying off. There are no chemical treatments for wireworms. Prevention is by far the best method of control. The beetles like to lay eggs amind dense vegetation, so keep weeds down and plants well-spaced. Don’t allow areas to remain uncultivated for too long and be ruthless in removing and killing any wireworms you find. You can also try nematodes that specifically attack wireworms.
I’ve curated a few delicious spinach recipes for you to try with all that lovely, nutritious spinach you’ll be harvesting. If you’ve got a favorite spinach recipe or preservation idea, leave a comment or contact us so we can review and add it to this list of spinach recipe links.
- Italian Baked Spinach and Egg With Parmesan
- Slow Cooker Chicken and Spinach Meatballs
- Spinach and Basil Salad With Blackberries and Feta
- Caprese Stuffed Chicken
- Quinoa, Spinach, and Apricot Salad
- Baby Spinach Salad With Roasted Carrots and Israeli Couscous
- Sesame Chicken Skillet With Spinach and Onions
- Spinach Spanakopita
- Spinach Artichoke Stuffed Portabello Mushrooms
- Warm Spinach and Egg Salad
As you can see, spinach is reasonably easy to grow, but to have a successful crop, you’ve got to get it right from the start. This guide provides you with everything you need to know to grow healthy spinach for at least three quarters of the year. Remember, plan which varieties to plant, when to plant them, and where, carefully to make sure you’ve got a steady supply of spinach leaves for as long as possible.