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A Pollination Moment
from Pollinator Paradise Farmer's Market E-mail reminders


Spinach Varieties

Most of my produce at this time of year  is from my hoop house and cold frame. In previous years, I've had lots still available in those protected environments when the market started.

This year, however, some of the spinach and mustard plants have already bolted, so they are gone. The lettuce in my cold frame was hit by an aphid outbreak so it had to be pulled. There is still some lettuce in the hoop house that I'm mixing with some lovely new spinach and tah tsai in my salad mix, but there are only a few bags, like last week.

I planted lettuce, spinach, and some other greens in my outside garden about April 15, but so far it is still quite small, just two cotyledons, and the first small true leaves. John Relk, who started the market 18 years ago, planted his spinach last fall, and he was picking the week before market started.

Early April was warm, but by the time I planted, temperatures dropped, and the wind and rain kicked up. So, my seeds were slow to germinate.  Then, on April 26 I moved the straw mulch aside, and there were quite a few tiny sprouts coming up. It's always exciting to see these sprouts in neat rows, validating the effort that went into planting them. I left the straw in the pathways between the rows to give the seedlings more light.

That afternoon we had a thunderstorm. For a few minutes, the hail came down at a fierce rate. The next day when I went out to the garden, there seemed to be very few seedlings. The ones that were still under straw survived better than the ones that were exposed. This week I replanted in the gaps between established seedlings.

That puts off the harvest by a week or two, depending on the weather. Timing is everything, they say, but you can only know the right timing after the fact in this business.

I like to hedge my bets with the weather by planting several varieties of most crops. If one variety is slow, or fails, another variety is likely to succeed. Most people are aware of the large diversity of tomato varieties, and my salad mix demonstrates that lettuce varieties abound. Did you know that spinach is also available in diverse varieties? Bloomsdale is probably the best known; an old standard that is slow to bolt. It has highly savoyed, that is crinkled, leaves.  I grew some last year. However, I prefer varieties with semi-savoyed or smooth leaves because they are easier to clean, and provide fewer hiding places for pests like aphids.

Leaf habit is another feature that distinguishes spinach varieties. Some varieties hug the ground until they bolt. The oriental varieties have long, arrow-shaped leaves, and they hold the leaves high off the ground, so they are easy to clean. They also bolt earlier than other varieties. Last week I pulled up all of the plants of Oriental Giant spinach from my hoop house and cold frame, where it was already too hot for them.

Because of the differences in timing of germination and bolting, my bags of spinach vary from week to week in what varieties are included. At peak season, I’ll include a little of everything. Early or late in the season one or two varieties may dominate. The weather makes all the difference.

This week my bags of spinach include Olympia, Tyee, and Erste Ernte, from Territorial seeds. Once I start to harvest outside I’ll also have Burpee’s Giant 157, and Johnny’s Space and Hector, both F1 hybrids.

Despite differences in leaf form, leaf position and the rate of growth in response to temperature, most varieties of spinach taste about the same to me, especially when cooked. Textures differ, which makes a difference to some when the spinach is raw in a salad.   In salads, my favorite is Erste Ernte (German for first harvest). It has large, elephant ear leaves with a mild, slightly nutty flavor and a crunchy texture. It also has a tendency to tear, which means you will probably not find it in the supermarket. It's the variety that is in my salad mix this week. Last week's salad mix was mostly Oriental Giant.

See if you can distinguish different spinach varieties next time you buy a bag.

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May 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Karen Strickler. All rights reserved.