The morning is chilly in our home’s greenhouse, whose only source of heat in December is the arc of the sun’s progress, low in the sky. Even when it’s behind clouds, the sun’s power is strong enough to thaw the hardy winter greens we grow there, and right now I’m picking the champion of them all: spinach. It’s the perfect winter crop.
If you’ve had a disappointing history with garden spinach, perhaps you planted it in spring and found it rapidly went to seed, spurred on by the lengthening days. Maybe you think you don’t even like spinach. But try winter spinach, just picked and sweetened by the cold, and tell me how it tastes. Grow it for winter harvest and it will sail through the season as your partner, your ace in the hole. Because it can’t go to seed in the short days, it will just keep putting out new leaves and filling your harvest basket.
I use a harvest bucket, actually, and I place it in the path where I’m kneeling, next to the bed. The picking goes very quickly if I cut the stems with a sharp little knife in my right hand and collect the leaves in my left. I pass up any of the outer leaves that are tough and flat on the ground, reaching for those that angle upward, with a good healthy green color. I also leave the tiny leaves at the center of the plant, which will just keep on emerging and growing. They’ll give me a long season of spinach to steam and butter, to saute in olive oil and garlic, to puree, or to turn into a soup, a quiche or an Indian saag paneer.
Chemical fertilizers will not give you sublime spinach. You want a balanced, slow-release nitrogen source such as mature homemade compost. Another sure route is to precede spinach with a legume crop such as red clover. Incorporate the clover into the soil in late spring and follow it with a sowing of bush beans, another legume that can be tilled into the spinach bed to add nitrogen to the soil. Do this in mid- to late August, three weeks before the spinach is planted. The residues of the legumes, and the nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots, will give the spinach a great boost and help it live up to its reputation as a nutritional powerhouse.
Are you annoyed yet? By this woman with her bucket full of yummy spinach, telling you what you should have done last summer? Fair enough. So here’s what you can do right now. Prepare a bed and rake in some dried alfalfa meal or crab meal if you don’t have any good compost, and sow some spinach seeds in the bed. If you don’t have a greenhouse, use a cold frame. If you don’t have a cold frame just sow in the garden and spread loose straw or (in a few weeks) Christmas tree boughs over the ground. Chances are the seeds will grow and reward you with extra-early greens to get you though the late-winter blues until the time of the tomato is in sight, when spinach surrenders its crown.
Damrosch’s new book, “The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook,” will be published in March.
Tip of the week
Bring terra cotta pots and containers indoors to prevent winter freeze damage. Dump old soil onto a compost pile or a garden bed and clean the pots with a stiff brush. There’s no need to wash them. They can be stored in unheated sheds and garages as long as they stay dry.
— Adrian Higgins