This is the second post in an ongoing series featuring “grow-your-own” produce and how to make the most of it this summer. Our hope is to demystify the process … help your “green (or maybe not-so-green) thumb” emerge … have some fun, particularly with the kids hanging around your house or neighborhood this summer … and help everyone understand how their food comes to be!

We hear you…“Gardening tips from a soup company?” Hey, we’re foodies – for us, food is endlessly fascinating and we think the more you know, the better you will eat; the better you eat, the better you’ll feel. Pretty simple notion and one that is fundamental to New England Country Soup … so let’s go play in the dirt and have some fun!

“Spinach is susceptible of receiving all imprints: It is the virgin wax of the kitchen.”
Grimod de la Reyniere

On spinach: “I dislike it, and am happy to dislike it because if I liked it I would eat it, and I cannot stand it.”
Le Prudhomme
‘Flaubert’s ‘Dictionnaire des idées reçues’

As you can see, even the great French minds have conflicting opinions of spinach. But both the love and detestation of the green stuff is a boon to this well-known member of the Amaranth family, because it can be the star of a dish or hide, providing sneaky vitamins and fiber like a vegetable ninja.

Bio: Spinach, genus Spinacia, species S.oleracea

Origins: Spinach is originally from ancient Persia and is historically known as the “Persian vegetable.” Over the centuries, spinach has been “introduced” to various cultures and countries through the hands of travelers, invaders, and refugees. During the green’s world wide tour, it assumed many names with various spellings such as épinard, espinac, asbinakh, es-sabaanikh, and the creative Old English spellings  spinnedge andspynoches. Whatever you call it, spinach made its way to England and France in the 14th century.

Planting: 

Whether you are working in raised beds, porch or window pots, or even a small plot of earth, spinach is a great beginners’ green, plowing the way to more adventurous leafy vegetables like kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens!

How to Buy: Planting from seeds is the way to go for most types of spinach, but if you are working with a small window box or single pot look for a small 2″ or 3″ single plant or plant bunch at your local nursery. Alternatively, if you would like to work with plants similar to plain old spinach – like arugla or rocket – you can buy these in small starter plants that grow into larger bunches over time.

Plant Prep: Once you’ve selected your preferred spinach type, consider your planting arrangement. Just as you would preheat your oven when baking or prepping your ingredients before cooking, assessing your planting space and readying the soil is a key to gardening success. In spinach’s case, the plant prefers moist soil in cooler climates and areas. If you happen to live somewhere a little warmer, have no fear! Simply pick a shady spot in your garden plot or move your window box or pot into the shade as needed to keep your spinach happy and cool.

The Details:

1. Till or lightly toss any old soil and break up any large clumps. Add water if soil is dry, remember that spinach likes moist soil! If you are adding new soil to a box or pot, make sure you are using organic made-for-edibles soil types (lawn soils and flower mixtures are created with those plants in mind and include pesticides and other chemicals you wouldn’t want in a home cooked meal).

2. If using seeds, plant seeds 1/2 inch deep and 2 inches apart in wide rows. Thin seedlings to 6 inches apart when the plants are 4 inches tall. This will help give the spinach plants room to grow and thrive instead of fighting each other for soil, nutrients, and sun. If using plants, take the spinach package and gently squeeze the lower end of the plastic container and slowly pull around the base of the plant from the other end. The plant should slide out complete, but it’s okay if a bit of soil remains in the container. Break up the roots with your fingers as if you were gingerly combing through tangled hair, trying to separate, but not break. Consider this plant like those seedlings that you would have thinned if you grew your spinach from seed, thus plant them about 6 inches apart to allow proper growth.

3. Dig a 3-5 inch well depending upon your plant and tuck the plant in, filling in the sides with extra soil, and level the base of the plant with the soil line in your container or garden bed. The plant should be level with the ground, rather than lower or built up on a mound. Pat the ground surrounding your plant to ensure a safe base. A light covering of mulch is a good way to ensure a consistently moist soil.

Post Planting:

– Water consistently, nearly everyday unless you live in a rainy area. Remember that spinach likes it cool and damp.

– If you plant in pots or window boxes, remember to move your containers to the shade as the sun changes position throughout the day and throughout the summer.

-Spinach is ready to harvest anywhere from 30-60 days depending on how you planted, the size of the container, and the weather. But, there’s no such thing as a “too small” spinach leaf!  Harvest as they grow, culling leaves from the outside of the plant moving inwards, this will allow the smaller inner leaves to continue growing and produce more leaves. Harvest the entire plant once it reaches a larger size and before it begins to flower. Fully mature spinach plants will have exterior leaves about the size of a credit card (but this can always vary depending upon variety) and the color will be a deep, even green. Most spinach plants will produce dainty white flowers, be sure to pick the leaves before these start to show up. You can tell a spinach plant is about to flower when even daintier buds form at the very top of the plant.

In the Kitchen:

Spinach stores best unwashed in zip-top bags in the refrigerator. Don’t wash till you’re ready to eat it!
There are so many wonderful uses for spinach (besides adding great taste and color to our as-good-as-homemade Nana’s Chicken Soup), but its biggest advantage is its versatility. The green can be center stage in a great big salad or hidden in burgers, egg dishes, smoothies and even brownies! Take a look at some of our favorite recipes below for some great home-grown spinach nosh!

– Artichoke and Spinach Dip

– Strawberry Spinach Salad

– Chinese Spinach Soup

– Oven baked Spinach Chips

– Creamy Spinach with Pancetta

– Warm Spinach and White Bean Dip

– Spinach Pesto (who needs basil!)

– Spanikopita

– Hidden Veg Brownies

– Greener Smoothies (My favorite recipe is 1 ripe banana, 1/2 cup frozen blueberries, 1/2 cup frozen pineapple, 1/2 cup frozen or fresh home-grown spinach, 1/4 cup coconut milk, cranberry juice, or skim milk. Puree everything in a blender or with a stick blender and enjoy! You won’t even see the green!)

Don’t be surprised if your spinach grows quicker than your stomach can eat it, but as always share with your friends and family. Spinach can also be frozen for long term storage: simply wash your greens, blanche for 2-3 minutes, quickly immerse in an ice bath to preserve color and flavor, drain and store in labeled ziptop bags with as much air removed as possible. You can also puree your fresh spinach (as in the above pesto recipe) and freeze it in ice cube trays! Simply pop the frozen cubes into a zip top bag and remove a cube as needed for a quick and light pasta dinner or throw a couple into your morning smoothie! Spinach all year long! Share the wealth and stay tuned for the next issue of “In the Soup Garden”!