Spinach is a staple crop that everyone likes to eat regularly. However it is a tricky crop to grow in this area and can be frustrating for gardeners. Spinach’s trickiness is mainly because of fluctuations in temperature that we experience during the cool weather time periods of spring and autumn. Spinach needs cool – consistently cool – temperatures to grow out fully. If temperatures get too hot, even for a single day, spinach has a tendency to bolt to seed, which means it will be stringy and weak and bad-flavored.
If you want to grow spinach, definitely start by choosing seed varieties that are specifically labeled as “slow to bolt” or “heat resistant.” Keep them regularly watered. And if you can, choose a spot in your garden that is as temperature regulated as possible. I usually have pretty good luck growing it on the western edge of my garden, where the trees create a dappled shade from about 3:30 pm on.
But there are many great alternatives to spinach that are MUCH easier to grow! They are also fun and useful to grow for diversity in nutrients and diversity in recipes even if you usually do well growing regular spinach!
Here’s a run down with my thoughts and experiences with “alternative spinaches”…
My all time favorite spinach alternative is good old-fashioned Swiss Chard – nothing seems to slow it down (except a soil mineral deficiency which is easily controllable and fixable). Flavor is good in all sorts of weather and temperatures. Just as healthy as spinach, nutrient wise, maybe healthier. I think Swiss Chard has a sharpness in flavor that really compliments Italian recipes.
It is a gorgeous plant to grow too. Really brightens and lushes up the garden. So I grow lots of Swiss Chard – big, white-stemmed, classic Fordhook, as well as the gorgeous Rainbow or Bright Lights, and a Japanese Chard called Umaina that I buy from Kitazawa Seeds.
Kitazawa also sells a Swiss Chard labeled as “Fantasia” which is all oranges and yellows…
Good King Henry
Good King Henry is my second favorite alternative to spinach. It is also a great “permaculture” plant, being a perennial vegetable. It does taste very much like spinach, especially when harvested in cool weather. It is also a hardy perennial – so plant a patch, and you’ll have spinach-like greens every year without having to replant.
Good King Henry doesn’t grow nearly as fast as Swiss Chard though. Because Swiss Chard is an annual (or actually a biennial) it is super-charged and grows like crazy. But as an annual, Swiss Chard also feeds heavily on the soil and needs to replanted every year. Good King Henry gets planted once. You still have to weed it, but once you have it established, you’re all set. Just plant a bunch of plants so you get the volume of greens that you want. I got my original seeds from Bountiful Gardens.
There are quite a few other popular spinach alternatives that you may have heard of that are prolific growing and thrive in heat. I like these plants and find they are useful in cooking for diversity… they may not be exact substitutes for spinach, but they are easy to grow and quite delicious in their own right! They do all seem to provide a lot of gut-health promoting inulin and FOS and many are medicinal herbs or closely related to major medicine-herbs.
Malabar Spinach is a very attractive vine – grown best on a trellis. It is gorgeous and comes in red and red-stemmed varieties as well as pure dark green. Very healthy – texture can be a bit slimy for raw use but fine when cooked (actually makes a thick and shiny sauciness). I got my seeds from Johnny’s.
It gets berries as the season progresses and cools down…. I grow it along the same trellis as the cucumbers.
New Zealand Spinach
New Zealand Spinach spreads and loves heat. Again, it doesn’t taste like spinach, but is closer in texture and flavor than Malabar. Soak your seeds for 2 days before planting as they can tough to germinate. I usually plant the whole packet and get about 50% to germinate. I’ve had good luck with seeds from Baker Creek and from Seed Savers Exchange.
Molokhia is also known as Egyptian Spinach or Jew’s Mallow. This was recommended to me by a CSA customer who was originally from Egypt – her 3 old daughter was so excited to see it in their basket! It is good – but different from spinach – but with the 3-year-old’s high recommendation, I kept giving it a chance, and I do really enjoy it now. I actually enjoy the little pods it makes at the end of the season the best. They are the size of french filet beans, look like mini okras, but have the flavor and texture of those mini corns you find in Chinese Food… I use seeds from Kitazawa.
Chinese Mallow or Vegetable Mallow
Unlike the medicinal herb, Marshmallow, the Chinese or Vegetable Mallow is not fuzzy and has tender and mild flavored leaves. It is high in mucilage like its cousin, marshmallow, and is also high in various forms of food for your intestinal micr0-herd. This is a green that heals and feeds the lower digestive tract.
Herba Stella or Staghorn Plantain
Herba Stella is a little known herb or green. It is directly related to Plantain, the great medicinal healing and drawing herb, but has a thin leaf shape and less stringy ribs. This makes is tender and biteable and great added to salads. It is mild in flavor – pleasant and a tiny bit salty. Very nice. I started to add it to smoothies and then to stir fries and now I chop a bunch of it up whenever I am throwing some chopped greens into a recipe, which is also every time!
Herba Stella is attractive and fast growing. I have never had it turn into a weed – it doesn’t spread like regular plantain and stays in a tight clump that keeps growing.
Quite frost hardy too!
This is a weed – but I particularly like the flavor and growing habit of a strain of Chickweed that Horizon Herbs or Strictly Medicinals sells.
Chickweed is wonderfully mild and sweet flavored. It is also prolific and easy to grow. The roots are shallow so it weeds easily if it does get out of control. I use it as a under-cover or living mulch under other vegetable plants. The shallow rots don’t compete with the other plants and the light and airy growth habit simply grows around the other plants.
Chickweed is a major medicinal herb – I use it in teas, tinctures, and salves. But Iuse it the most as a super food. It is full of nutrients. It is called Chickweed because when you feed it to baby chicks, they grow up into vital and strong chickens.