- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Harvesting is one of the joys of gardening, but unlike the grocery-store aisle, the garden only offers bounty when the time is right. That’s particularly true of spinach.

In a hot summer garden, spinach simply will not grow. Spinach thrives in cool temperatures, but in warm weather, it goes to seed and becomes bitter and inedible. Not to worry. Two similar greens do well in heat.

The first is called Malabar spinach (Basella alba). My favorite variety is Rubra, and even though it’s not really a spinach, it’s a great substitute.

Usually started from seed, this plant needs support because it can climb 6 to 14 feet. The beautiful purple tendrils of Rubra are set off by heart-shaped deep green leaves that grow to about 4 inches in diameter. The plant will continue its rapid growth until daytime temperatures dip below 50 degrees.

I love to grow Malabar spinach up a teepee of thick bamboo. The plant easily covers the trellis, and the tender leaves are a treat in salads and can be used in place of spinach in many recipes. Seeds should be soaked for 24 hours before planting to hasten germination.

Growers in cool-weather climates can take stem cuttings and winter them in a warm greenhouse. For this, a vine should be cut toward the end and left about 4 inches long. The cut end should be dipped in Rootone to promote the rooting process. The cutting is pushed down into vermiculite in a pot, covered with plastic and stored in a bright (not sunny) spot until it roots in a week or two. The plastic is then removed, and the plant will thrive indoors until the next season.

Saving the plant seed is also easy. After the purple seed pods dry at the end of the season, pull the seeds off, dry them and store them in an airtight jar. I like to use Mason jars stored in a cool basement, but anywhere cool and dark will work. Malabar spinach is a good source of fiber and is high in vitamins A and C as well as calcium and iron.

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) is another imposter that will thrive in hot weather. This is a bushy plant that gets a couple of feet high and a few feet across when grown in good soil in warm weather. The tender leaves can be harvested when the plant spreads out a foot or so.

After the first cutting, the plant will continue to produce foliage. Some gardeners cut the whole plant down to just a few inches and then harvest one more time as new growth emerges.

New Zealand spinach is another plant usually started from seed, which should be soaked for a day before planting to help speed germination. The seeds will sprout in a week or two when soil is kept moist.

New Zealand spinach is actually a succulent and will survive and even thrive under tough conditions. For best results, grow it in well-drained, fertile soil and keep it watered to produce the most tender leaves. It’s high in vitamin C and will act as a perennial in warmer climates, almost to the point of being invasive.

If you live where temperatures are starting to cool, now is best time to sow real spinach because spinach loves fall weather and can stand a light frost. Seeds planted now will produce nice-size leaves for harvest in less than a month.

Many gardeners winter small plants in the garden by protecting them with a floating row cover. It’s a spun bound translucent fabric that acts as a greenhouse.

Plant survival rates can be well over 50 percent, depending on winter severity. The plants will leaf out again in early spring and produce greens before most gardeners have even started planting.

All three of the varieties of spinach, including the two faux varieties mentioned here, provide tasty, nutritious greens for the kitchen. There’s little reason why they can’t be harvested during each of the four seasons, regardless of your climate.

Easy warm spinach salad

5 garlic cloves, minced

2 red chilies, sliced lengthwise (remove seeds to reduce heat, if desired)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups Malabar spinach leaves

1 half-inch piece ginger root, chopped

2 scallions, sliced

1½ cups half-and-half

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

Salt

Saute garlic and chilies in olive oil until garlic is softened but not browned, a couple of minutes. Add Malabar spinach and cook until wilted.

In a saucepan, combine ginger root, scallion, half-and-half, lime juice and salt to taste and simmer, stirring constantly. Do not let boil. Add cooked Malabar spinach and mix to combine. Makes 4 servings.

Faux Florentine and shrimp pasta

Salt

Water

1 teaspoon butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 8-ounce package sliced mushrooms

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup chicken broth

½ cup dry white wine

6 ounces cream cheese, cut in chunks

1½ pounds cooked and peeled large shrimp

Pepper

1 pound angel hair pasta

5 cups New Zealand or Malabar spinach

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring pot of salted water to a boil to cook pasta and keep warm.

Melt butter in a saucepan, add onion and cook on medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and saute over medium heat about 5 more minutes, or until tender. Add garlic until softened but not browned.

Add broth and wine, and increase heat to medium high and cook for 5 minutes, or until mixture starts to boil down. Reduce heat and add cream cheese, shrimp and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.

Cook pasta according to package directions in pot of salted water. (This will only take a couple of minutes.) Drain and place in serving bowl. Add spinach to hot pasta and stir until spinach wilts a bit. Pour shrimp mixture over pasta and toss to combine. Sprinkle evenly with grated cheese and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Doug Oster writes the Backyard Gardener column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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