Planting spinach
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Growing spinach

From Sarah’s garden to yours

As far as vegetables go, spinach has the honour of being very unpopular and yet super cool at the same time.  The unpopular reputation has a lot to do with it being presented as a side dish after being boiled to death at least once in your childhood.  But it has a new found popularity eaten raw while young and tender, added to smoothies to create a nutrient dense supplement and eaten in a myriad of ways that doesn’t include death by boiling.

The love of all things spinach isn’t new.  It has been eaten for centuries.   It started out as a native crop in ancient Persia and began its spread across the world and had reached China, via India by the 7th Century. The Chinese still refer to it as the ‘Persian Green.’  It also spread from Persia into Spain by the 12th century and then across Europe into German in the 13th Century followed by France and England in the 14th Century.  Eventually it found its way to the rest of the world following colonisation. 

Across history it found brief fame in medical and agricultural documents in the Mediterranean in the 10th Century, was expressed in art in the middle ages as the green pigment for paint and in the hands of a super strong cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man in the 1930’s.  

It is interesting that this unremarkable looking leafy green should be embraced across so many cultures for centuries and still find itself being exalted by many even today. Given its health benefits, it isn’t surprising at all.  Spinach is very good for you.

Fresh spinach

Spinach contains 15 vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health.  It contains high levels of vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K and manganese, folate, magnesium, iron, copper, calcium and potassium.  It is even said to have more potassium that a banana! 

It also provides vitamin B1, phosphorus, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, selenium and dietary fibre, among other things.  It also contains a lot of water and raw spinach is about 90% water, as you will experience when you fill a pot to cook it and are left with a small amount at the bottom!  They have 5% less water than is found in a cucumber.

There is a misconception that spinach is extremely high in iron, however due to flawed research and the fame of Popeye back in the 1930’s, the misunderstanding spread into the realm of common knowledge.   Much of the iron in spinach is in a form that is unavailable to humans.  To compound this problem, spinach contains high levels of oxalates, which prevent the absorption of iron.

However, all is not lost, liquifying or boiling spinach for at least two minutes will release stored beta-carotene and enable the iron to be absorbed more readily.  Another option is to accompany spinach with a food that is high in Vitamin C.  Unlike other vegetables, spinach is one that benefits from being cooked and releases 3x the nutrients available in fresh spinach so enjoy it in a stir fry, quiche, tossed in with pasta, turned into soup or popped in an Indian curry or blitzed in a smoothie.  There are so many ways to enjoy spinach.  Half a cup of spinach accounts for one of your five a day fruits and vegetables.   It is even said to help satiate appetites and help you to feel full.

It is certainly a controversial vegetable and the high amounts of Vitamin K can cause problems for some people as it can cause blood clotting and may interfere with blood thinning medication.  This ability was utilised during World War I as spinach juice was given to injured soldiers with the intention of thickening their blood to reduce severe bleeding. 

Spinach seedlings

Spinach is generally available all year round, but it is considered in season in the late spring to early summer. This helped its popularity as it was a nutrient rich food available at a time when not much else is growing.    However, it can lose many of those beneficial nutrients quickly on storing so fresh is best.  After 8 days in the fridge it will have lost half of its goodness.  Spinach doesn’t freeze well.

So, to get the best out of spinach would be to grow it yourself and it isn’t all that difficult.    It is often described as a flowering plant from the Amaranth family and is also closely related to beets.  As a plant it can grow quite big and so should be planted with enough room, at least 30cm either side, to allow it to grow into its full potential.   The leaves can grow as large as 30 cm, depending on variety and how fertile your soil is.   It prefers a moist, free draining soil, in a cool environment. They also grow well in containers.  It is better suited to cool climates and if it gets too warm it can bolt to seed.  It can be started indoors in seed trays or sown directly in the garden. 

Harvest spinach by taking individual leaves from the outside of the plant at any stage from as small ‘baby spinach’ sized leaves or the larger leaves around 30cm or more (or anything in between).  This will encourage the growth of new leaves and extend the life of the plant.  If you regularly succession plant, you can have a steady supply for most of the year.  Be sure to check the varieties you are sowing as some are better suited to summer conditions and others prefer the cool of winter. 

Spinach seedlings