When people ask me about easy food plants to grow, I enthusiastically rave about perpetual spinach.
I love growing them for several reasons.
These plants want to grow. There are no demands for an extra dressing room or a tray of Skittles. They're down to earth. They're a member of the Beet family and not a true spinach. They have the flavour of spinach but, like silverbeet, are easier and hardier to grow.
They're tough. I have perpetual spinach popping up in places that even kikuyu is fussy about. Seriously.
They have giving souls. All perpetual spinach asks is for some time to establish then they want to be of service. Only two weeks after planting, they're ready to start harvesting. Admittedly they're a little shy at first but once they get going, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
They're good for your self-esteem as a gardener. Tough, vibrant food plants equate to puffed out chests.
They cope with partial shade. Apartment balcony with only half a day sunlight? Damn neighbours put up a fence that blocks your afternoon sun? Perfect. They thrive in full sun however will still perform on 4 hours of sunlight a day. Any less than that, they'll grow, but be pale and weak. I can relate.
They grow well and look good in containers.
Two for the price of one. Mature leaves of perpetual spinach are similar in size to silverbeet. You can harvest the large leaves for bulky dishes like spinach and ricotta cannelloni or you can treasure hunt among the foliage for more delicate leaves for your salads and sandwiches.
If you want to grow them with love (and you should - they deserve it) here are some tips;
Fertiliser - Additional fertiliser is not usually required. If your plants start looking tired (especially in containers) then give them a drink of fish emulsion or liquid fertilizer. A light sprinkling of chook poo would be appreciated.
Water - All living things need water. Perpetual spinach will start to wilt when they're thirsty. They abhor wet feet.
Climate - Perpetual spinach is OK with hot, dry conditions. They tolerate frost.
Sun - Give as much as you can - the absolute minimum (borderline cruel) is three hours per day.
Soil - Rich, free-draining soil.
Spacing - Approximately 35-40cm apart. Rows 30-40 cm apart.
Weeding and Mulching - Perpetual spinach will compete with weeds and win. Nevertheless, you should respect their space and aim to keep their home weed free. Mulching does the work for you.
How many? - It's a personal choice depending on space and consumption. I recommend starting out with 4-6 plants per person.
Harvesting - Constant harvesting promotes vigorous growth. They produce all year round.
Life span - OK, so they lie. They're not perpetual after all. They won't bolt in the first year, however, they will need replacing as they tire and go to seed later in the second year. Leave your first planting to go to seed and plant more while you wait for the seed to mature. Let seed fall freely for a 'wilderness garden' or collect dry seed and store. You can then direct sow where you'd like them to grow. Seed is ready when it's dry and completely brown - the colour of cardboard. Or plant anew as you see them getting old.
Landscaping ideas - Perpetual spinach looks funky as a garden border plant.
Container growing - Make sure the soil is well draining. You'll need to water them regularly - containers always dry out quickly. Pop one in the centre of the pot and plant spring onions or strawberries around the edge. It'll depend on the size of your pot. Don't sweat it - play.
Pests and problems - Snails and slugs like to snooze and snack among the leaves. Get rid of the blighters and always wash your greens. Beet rust can appear in hot, humid conditions - particularly on dry and under nourished plants. It's a fungus that shows up as rust coloured spots on leaves. Remove any affected leaves and destroy by fire. Unless your compost is magma hot, the spores will live on. Give your plants a deep drink of liquid fertilizer. If the rust is rampant, you can apply a (cooled) chamomile tea - approx. 1 bag to 500ml water. However, severe cases are best removed.
Name - Their fancy Latin name is Beta vulgaris for when you're pinky-finger-out bragging over cocktails with friends.
Beginner and small space gardeners will gain satisfaction from absolutely rocking it in one type of vegetable, all year round. You should consider learning about and growing a diverse range of produce, however growing a steady supply of at least one vegetable will boost your self-esteem and self-sufficiency cred. Perpetual spinach is the perfect choice.