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Ask a Master Gardener: New Zealand spinach serves as alternative to regular spinach

by Peter Sutter | May 6, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

If you like spinach and live in Mid-Missouri, than you know the growing season for spinach is pretty short. Once the days warm up and the temperature reaches in the 80 degrees, spinach will start to bolt.

In our area, this plant's productive life usually stops by the end of May. Spinach is also affected by day length, so it will bolt in June even if the temperatures are cool.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try an alternative "spinach" called New Zealand spinach. This is not a true spinach but has a taste very similar and can be eaten raw or cooked just like the real stuff. In fact, my wife freezes it to use in recipes during the winter.

New Zealand spinach does well in sunny, hot, dry conditions, like we have been having. It prefers well-drained soils with plenty of organic matter. Seeds can be directly sown in the garden when all danger of frost has passed. Plant seeds ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart.

Germination takes longer than regular spinach and can take two to three weeks. You can speed this up by soaking the seeds overnight. New Zealand spinach is much larger than traditional spinach so you will have to leave a little extra space between rows. Thin the plants to twelve inches apart when the seedlings are about 2 inches high. Each plant can grow up to 2-3 feet long and will continue to grow after they are cut back. We would cut stems and all, then sit in the shade and pick the leaves off.

Mulching is recommended as it will suppress weeds and retain moisture in the soil. Although New Zealand spinach is drought tolerant, growth and flavor are enhanced by adequate supply of water, at least 1 inch per week. New Zealand spinach is also a heavy feeder. Interestingly, this plant bolts and turns to seed from a lack of nitrogen rather than heat or day length.

When it sets seed, the flavor of the leaves becomes more bitter. To avoid bitterness, start with a nutrient-rich soil and apply additional nitrogen fertilizer monthly throughout the growing season. One quarter cup of 20-0-0 fertilizer per 10-foot row is recommended. Harvest the smaller leaves and growth tips. New Zealand spinach will regrow well and continue until the first hard frost. Cutting the plant back to a node low on the stem will result in branching and regrowth.

Although the leaves feel more succulent-like than traditional cool-season spinach, it is a good substitute in the kitchen. Young leaves can be added to other salad greens. It can be chopped and steamed. New Zealand spinach is high in vitamins A, B1, B2 and C. New Zealand spinach freezes well and is a flavorful and healthy addition to soups and pasta dishes throughout the winter. To freeze, blanch, drain and immerse in a bowl of iced water to cool, drain and place in an airtight container. Double bagging in freezer-quality ziplock bags works well.

If you are looking for a new twist on an old favorite, give New Zealand spinach a try. I will be planting it again.

Happy Gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway CountyMaster Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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