New Zealand spinach: a big provider that doesn't mind the heat

Frost struck without warning one night last October. In the morning, I gazed ruefully at the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and beans that would never grace my table. But my New Zealand spinach stood unscathed. Related to true spinach (Spinacia oleracea) in name only, New Zealand spinach scarcely could be mistaken for it in looks. True spinach comes to maturity in tidy rows of leafy rosettes, and it bolts quickly in summer heat. New Zealand spinach, by contrast, is a rover, its meaty leaves sprouting on long stems that meander along the ground and spread four feet or more.

While perhaps not as nutritious as true spinach, the taste of the New Zealand product is of greater interest. It's just as good as spinach with eggs and equally adaptable in green ravioli and other pasta dishes, as well as in soups and souffl'es. That's something for the gardener-chef to consider now that spinach dishes have risen beyond Popeye utilitarianism to the gourmet scene.

Unlike spinach or the young leaves of Swiss chard, however, New Zealand spinach has one notable drawback. It is unsuitable for salads, tending to make the throat prickle when eaten raw. At the same time, true spinach is impractical in the home garden. It reduces so much in cooking that whole rows are needed for only a few meals. My 25 by 65-foot garden provides plenty of corn, asparagus, tomatoes, peas, beans, and such crops for two, but it is not nearly large enough for spinach. I just grow a few plants for early salad greens.

New Zealand spinach, on the other hand, is a big provider, reaching picking size in the middle of July and continuing to renew itself and produce plentifully into the fall. Its leaves being thicker, it doesn't cook down as much as spinach. While it won't survive a black frost, a light frost enhances its taste -- a hint, perhaps, of its excellent performance when frozen.

Except for slow germination, it is one of the easiest vegetables to raise, happy in any reasonably fertile soil (pH of 6.0 to 6.8 is desirable) and not subject to pests. It also can stand some shade. I grow it on the edge of my asparagus bed and it doesn't mind the shadows cast by the midsummer foliage.

It wants watering in a dry spell, but mine, at least, doesn't require fertilizer beyond a tablespoon of 5-10-5 that I put in with each plant when setting out.

Just a few plants spaced a couple of feet apart are sufficient for summer needs, but I grow about 10 to stock the freezer. You harvest it by cutting a long stem or two close to the ground or pinching off tips of the whole plant.

Seed catalogs urge you to soak the seed overnight to stimulate germination before sowing. Some manuals tell you to sow when all danger of frost is past, while others say that ``earlier is better.'' I've found the seed to be obstinate early or late, pre-soaked or not, and I have settled for sowing indoors under lights in April for transplanting to the garden in May.

In the same flat, I've seen some seeds sprout in 10 days, while others took four weeks or more. Even as much as a 70-day delay has been reported.

Ironically, New Zealand spinach is a great self-seeder, and I've found a plant or two coming up in unexpected places in the garden year after year. Tardy or not, it's a vegetable worth waiting for.

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