Summer isn’t spinach season so try these hardy substitutes

07/12/2014 12:00 AM

07/11/2014 11:09 AM

Popeye ain’t the only bloke who’s gotta have spinach. Some gardeners also crave it, freshly picked.

This isn’t spinach season, though. Spinach is sensitive to cycles of night and day, and summer’s short nights induce the plants to send up flower stalks, set seed and then die, instead of growing the succulent, broad leaves they do in spring and fall. Hot weather also plays a role in inducing flower stalks.

Any gardener claiming to be harvesting spinach right now either lives in the tropics, where nights are never less than 12 hours long, or south of the equator. I guess if you lived in more northern climes and really loved spinach, you could cover the plants for a period each evening or morning, giving them more darkness during the two weeks when there are 10 hours or less of it naturally.

Spinach kin

Covering plants or moving far south seems to be more trouble than spinach justifies, especially when you could just plant a spinach substitute instead. These ersatz spinaches all bear well despite the heat and long days of summer.

Some are actually close relatives of the real thing. A familiar one – perhaps too familiar – is redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus). You’re probably already growing this “spinach” and yanking it out, as it is a common garden weed. For best eating, harvest the leaves while the plants are still young.

Redroot pigweed is but one of many amaranths; others, such as Jacob’s coat, are grown as ornamentals or for their nutritious seeds. Amaranths’ weedy nature is a plus when you grow them either for food or for ornament; their unique metabolism lets them thrive while most other plants are gasping in summer heat and dryness.

Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) is another spinach – or weed, depending on your perspective and taste buds. You should be able to find it in your garden now. It’s sometimes called goosefootfor the leaves’ resemblance to the foot of a goose.

Another spinach relative common in gardens is Swiss chard. Chard is among the few “greens” – which include kale, collards and another “spinach” soon to be mentioned – that thrives in cool as well as warm weather. Sow chard seeds in early spring and start picking the outer leaves as soon as they are large enough to eat. Young ones keep growing from the center of the plant, which keeps bearing on into fall, often surviving even very cold winters. Winter survival makes for some fresh leaves in spring, but then the plants send up flower stalks induced, in this case, by cold weather rather than short nights.

Not kin, but spinachy

Not even distantly related to spinach but with “spinach” in their names are Malabar spinach (Basella rubra) and New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). Sow Malabar spinach seeds indoors a few weeks before the last spring frost, and New Zealand spinach, which thrives in cool as well as hot weather, outdoors as soon as the soil thaws in spring. Don’t get impatient waiting for New Zealand spinach seeds to germinate, for they are slow and erratic in doing so.

In its native tropical haunts, Malabar spinach is a perennial vine that clambers up to 30 feet in height; in northern gardens, grow it as an annual reaching 4 to 6 feet. Giving it a trellis keeps the leaves off the ground and free of dirt, and makes a decorative, edible screen. Especially decorative, with purple stems and dark green leaves, is the variety Rubra.

In contrast to Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach stays earthbound, sending up just a short upright shoot from whose base sprawls ground-hugging shoots. Unrestrained, a single plant might gobble up a square yard of ground.

Pluck off the fleshy, round, young Malabar spinach leaves or the shoot tips and leaves of New Zealand spinach whenever the urge for spinach strikes you. New Zealand spinach is good raw in salads, as well as cooked.

If only Popeye could stay ashore long enough to plant a garden, he wouldn’t have to settle for that canned spinach.

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