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(Spinacia oleracea)

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Viroflay spinach

This is another vegetable for which the hybrids are squeezing the good old open-pollinated types out of the seedsmen’s catalogues. Nonetheless, after doing all the due-diligence stuff, we feel we can say that the open-pollinated French heirloom (developed prior to 1866) Viroflay (aka Monstrueux de Viroflay) is the choice—that’s it at the right. Seeds are widely available.

Its days-to-maturity are 40 to 50. It tolerates light frosts, and is supposedly reasonably bolt-hardy for a spinach. Bolting (going to seed) in even moderately warm weather is the bane of all spinach types; one experienced gardener has said “I gave up growing spinach, the yields and finickiness in our climate [USDA Zone 6b, which we share] just aren’t worthwhile.” About the only way to get a good crop (and, fortunately, spinach freezes well) is to plant it out—usually by direct-seeding—really early: no later than the first week in March or, perhaps better, the last week of February. Or, one can direct-seed it in late summer or even early autumn for harvest through autumn and fairly well into winter (or let them over-winter and pop up in early spring).

It has trowel-shaped leaves that measure about 8" x 10", and are only slightly savoyed. Its color is dark green, and its low-oxalic-acid foliage reportedly stays tender at any stage of development.

For those not averse to hybrids, there is a variety called Okame described as “meant for summer harvest”; its DTM is an amazingly low 35 to 53 days. And it comes in both green and red sorts. The growing recommendations say to sow seed outdoors as soon as soil temperatures reach 45° to 75°, then sow again in the fall 60 to 70 days before the expected first frost. Nonetheless, it is not an all-summer crop: it is said to bolt “during hot weather or when there is more than 14 hours of light”.



We’ll repeat what we said above: plant it out by direct-seeding no later than the first week in March or, perhaps better, the last week of February—and/or direct-seed it in late summer or even early autumn for harvest through autumn and fairly well into winter (or let them over-winter and pop up in early spring). Basically, you can’t really plant too early: the seeds will sit there till the ground is warm enough for them, then germinate.

The Bed

A good garden soil is wanted. Spinach (like beets) likes a more alkaline enviroment than most vegetables: a soil pH of 6.5 to 6.9 is optimum (spinach grows very poorly at a pH below 6.0). Not a few gardeners sprinkle wood ashes over the growing area to alkalize the soil, which is fine, but you’re best off to get and use a reliable soil pH meter and add alkalizing materials slowly with constant re-checks of the pH as you go.

Planting Out

Spinach is normally direct-seeded. not a few sources recommend “stratifying” seeds prior to planting, but veteran gardeners report no need for such antics.

Viroflay plants can get up to 2 feet wide, so spacing them at 1' seems wise, even in a deep-dug bed. Sow the seed about ½ inch deep. As one veteran grower put it, “If you do not have rich, loose soil or do not provide consistent water or adequate N [nitrogen], you aren’t going to be happy.”


Keep spinach well watered. If you’re not using drip irrigation, water in the morning, so the foliage is dry before dark. Supply enough water to moisten the soil to a depth of six inches. A uniform supply of soil moisture is required for really good-quality spinach.

Seedlings typicaly emerges in about 2 weeks, and are ready for harvest after about 6 weeks from sowing. Spinach notoriously starts slowly, then accelerates during the 3 weeks or so just before harvest.

Before the freezer was commonplace, succession sowing was the norm, but today we might as well sow at the optimum time and harvest all at once. If you simply must have the occasional spinach salad, plant a little extra and harvest it on a cut-and-come-again basis—but be prepared for it to bolt in early summer. To harvest spinach leaves, cut or nip off the outer leaves, leaving the small inner leaves to continue to develop.


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.

Odds and Ends


Spinach is another member of the useful Chenopodiaceae (goosefoot) family, which also includes beets and Swiss chard.


Spinach apparently arose in Persia, where it was cultivated as far back as 2,000 years ago. In old Persian, the word for spinach was aspanakh (or ispanai), meaning roughly “green hand”; by late Latin, the word had been turned to spanachia, and in English became spinage and finally “spinach”. The Arabs, who acquired knowledge of the plant from the Persians, called it “the prince of vegetables”.

It was Arab traders who carried spinach into India, and then China (probably in 647 A.D.), and, with the Moorish advances, into Spain and southern Europe; some say spinach was being grown in Spain as early as the 8th century, and it surely was by about A.D. 1100. The prickly-seeded form was known in Germany by no later than the 13th century, though the smooth-seeded form was not described till 1552. (It is the smooth-seeded form that is used in modern commercial production). By the 1300s, spinach cultivation had spread to Britain, where the vegetable was popular in religious communities, particularly during Lent.

In 1533, Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France; she so fancied spinach that she insisted it be served at every meal. Because spinach was then regarded as having a major iron content, wine fortified with spinach juice was used to treat French soldiers weakened by haemorrhage—to this day, dishes made with spinach are known as “Florentine” because Catherine came from Florence, Italy.

European settlers soon brought spinach to the New World. By 1806, spinach had become so popular vegetable here that it was regularly listed in American seed catalogs.

In modern America, spinach is considered the archetype of the good-tasting, healthful vegetable that small children dislike just because it is healthful—and has become inextricably bound up with the cartoon character Popeye the sailor, whose superhuman strength supposedly derives from his ingestion of spinach. (The simplistic animated-cartoon Popeye, to whom this legend was attached, is a very far cry from the much stranger and more adult figure—quite unconnected with spinach—who strode through the weird and surrealistic world of the late Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theater”, the newspaper comic strip in which Popeye achieved first fame.) Several spinach-growing towns have erected statues of Popeye.


Spinach is another of those leafy greens (like spinach) whose culinary values depend in good part on their oxalic-acid content. Most people need not be concerned about that, but those with certain conditions—kidney disease, kidney stones, rheumatoid arthritis, gout—do need to be more than ordinarily careful about oxalic acid.

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