Of all the green vegetables, spinach is often considered one of the best – useful both fresh and cooked. Nutritionally, it’s mostly loaded with lots of vitamin A, and current research indicates it may also be a rich source of antioxidants.

Spinach and basket

Savoy-leafed spinach has dark green, crinkly leaves.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Smooth leaf spinach

Smooth-leafed spinach is easy to clean.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is an annual that flowers (or “bolts”) when days get warm during late spring and there’s more than 14 hours of light. It can be grown anywhere in the country, but planting must conform to the plant’s requirement for cool and short-day conditions.

The first planting should be seeded as early as the garden can be worked in the spring. Fall planting should be made in late August, with leaves ready to pick in October or November. In milder parts of the country (USDA Hardiness zone 7 and south), an overwinter planting can be made, with seed planted in late October for an early spring harvest. Spinach is usually large enough to begin cutting about eight weeks after planting.

In the home garden, this vegetable should be planted in rows, with six to 12 seeds per foot of row. Expect each foot of row to yield about a pound of fresh leaves. Spinach is a heavy feeder, so add ¼ cup of ammonium sulfate (spinach has a high sulfur requirement) per 10 feet of row when plants are 2 inches tall, then again after the first harvest to keep the plants growing vigorously. Harvest can be total – with the plants cut off below ground – or a bit of stem can be left so the plants will regrow. (Commercial growers use this method and usually mow their spinach fields two or three times a season to maximize yield.)

Spinach originated in Persia (today’s Iran), from where it was exported to China by the 7th century. It made its way to Europe about the time of Marco Polo’s visit in the 14th century, and arrived in the New World with the earliest immigrants. During its early years of life in America, spinach seemed to have been just another vegetable, but all of that changed when it got its very own press agent: Popeye.

During the 20s and 30s, the USDA used its Home Economist staff employed by state Cooperative Extension Services to promote the use of leafy green vegetables such as spinach as a source of the all-important vitamin A. Popeye’s use of spinach, no doubt taken from the ongoing research in vitamins, provided just the right elixir to enable him to best the villainous Bluto at every turn. The publicity at the time caused spinach to become the third most popular vegetable served to children. Kids, of course, didn’t get a vote, but having a hero of the silver screen promoting spinach undoubtedly made the veggie slither down the gullet a bit easier.

Today’s children may not see a lot of Popeye (or even know who he is), but by getting the kids involved in your spinach-growing efforts, you have a good chance of boosting their interest in this vitamin-filled veggie – and may even get them to eat it. (Blutos beware!)