By Barbara Pleasant, Calmful Living Gardening Editor
I had been gardening for years when I discovered something strange about spinach: It actually likes growing through the long, cold (and even snowy) days of winter. Seedlings started in September have the best chance of working winter to their advantage, which the little plants do by staying tight and small while cold weather lasts. Then, when the days get longer and brighter in early spring, the patient plants unfurl their solar collectors (leaves) as they explode with new growth. The crisp, sweet leaves are ready to start harvesting while frosts are still frequent, extending your spring salad season for six weeks or more.
By fall, most veggie gardeners have some space available for this noble undertaking, which calls for a fertile bed in full sun. You will also need some spinach seeds, but leftover seeds will probably work fine. Spinach seeds stay viable for up to five years, and you can prime them to further improve their germination. To prime spinach seeds, soak them in room temperature water overnight, and then allow them to slowly dry on paper towels for a couple of days. Plant the primed seeds three to five days after their overnight soak.
You can sow the seeds directly into a well-prepared bed, or plant them in small seedling containers. Hot daytime temperatures can inhibit germination, so I usually opt for containers, which I keep indoors or in cool shade until the seeds sprout. Working with seedlings also helps me get more exact spacing, which for winter spinach is 12 inches between plants.
Easy Igloos for Winter Spinach
By the time fall turns to winter, the spinach seedlings should be about three inches across, or “teacup” size. Spinach responds to cold by loading its leaves with anti-freeze compounds and hosting bacteria that further boost its cold tolerance. In mild winter climates spinach will sail through winter with no special protection. But in most climates, it is wise to protect spinach from ice and heavy snow with simple cloches (bell-shaped protection) made from gallon plastic water or milk jugs, which are easily obtained at any recycling center. They need not have caps, because the cloches should be left open to vent.
To turn a plastic jug into a cloche, first use a sharp knife to cut a V-shaped notch in the top of the handle, just above the outer curve. Then use utility scissors to cut off the bottom of the jug. In the garden, center the cloche over a plant, and then push a slender stick down through the hole in the handle and into the soil to hold the cloche steady in the wind. If you then mulch between the staked cloches with chopped leaves or rough compost, they won’t move until you take them off after the plants start growing again in spring.
By the way, I have tried tunnels and other types of winter protection for spinach, and most setups are fine until a heavy snow causes them to collapse. This won’t kill spinach; however, I’m sure the plants don’t like it. But they love living under cloches. Even when covered with deep snow for weeks at a time, the cloches work like individual igloos.
Perhaps we should not be so surprised that spinach is such a champ at surviving winter, since plant historians think it was originally grown as a winter crop in Mesopotamia over five thousand years ago. Those ancient gardeners knew a good thing when they tasted it, because no greens come on crisp and sweet in spring like overwintered spinach can do. More than any other vegetable, spinach turns winter cold into something good.
Barbara Pleasant is not just an expert, she’s passionate about everything garden. She’s the author of four books, including Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens and is a contributing editor to Mother Earth News and the Herb Companion magazines. Her work has garnered her multiple awards.