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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006 12:01 pm

Grow your own spinach

Plan now for a spring crop

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I have not-so-fond childhood memories of being force-fed cooked spinach topped with sliced hard-boiled eggs. As an adult, I still have trouble eating cooked spinach, but I do enjoy fresh spinach in a mixed garden salad.

Spinach has gotten a lot of bad publicity recently. Because of the contamination scare, fresh spinach may be in short supply at the supermarket, but there are plenty of other local sources, including area farmers’ markets and produce growers. Several vendors sell green leafy vegetables, including spinach, at Springfield’s Old Capitol Farmers’ Market, which is open on Adams Street each Wednesday and Saturday through the end of this month.

Many gardeners, though, enjoy the rewards of growing their own spinach. Not only can they choose the varieties they prefer, but they also have complete knowledge of the growing history of their plants. Freshly harvested spinach has the highest possible nutrient levels, too, including vitamins A and C, thiamine, potassium, folic acid, and iron.

Spinach is an easy-to-grow cool-season crop. Because the best times to grow spinach are the early spring and the fall, gardeners should plan now for a spring crop. Spinach thrives in full sun to partial shade in a well-drained, fertile soil that’s high in organic matter. To get the earliest spring crop, prepare the soil now by removing plant debris, tilling or turning the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, and incorporating fertilizer or organic matter such as compost into the soil. Broadcast the fertilizer into the soil before seeding. In the spring, apply 3 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet. Feed again when plants are a couple of inches tall and again after a couple of weeks.

Choose varieties that are slow-bolting (or long standing) and disease resistant. Spinach matures quickly, with just 30 to 50 days from seed to harvest. Seeds germinate best in a soil temperature of 50 to 60 degrees and will not germinate at a soil temperature above 75 degrees. Sow seeds a half- inch deep, about 6 inches apart. (Because spinach is a short crop, extend the season by sowing seeds every 10 days during the early spring.) Keep the soil moist until seedlings emerge; spinach plants need consistent moisture to ensure a quality product, so when rainfall is inadequate, apply 1 inch of water every seven days. For quicker germination in the fall, chill seeds in the refrigerator for one to two weeks before planting. To get a fall crop of spinach, you should ideally sow seeds in late August, but if you can find a packet of seeds, try sowing them now.)

Spinach plants can withstand temperatures as low as 20 degrees. Before temperatures drop this low, try overwintering the plants by covering them with an organic mulch. As temperatures warm up in the spring, uncover the crop. Plants will rest during the winter and begin actively growing with warmer temperatures. Another option is to grow plants in a cold frame, which allows some gardeners to enjoy fresh spinach well into the winter.

For more information on choosing and cultivating spinach, visit the University of Illinois Extension’s “Watch Your Garden Grow” Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/spinach1.html.

For more information about the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon.

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