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Plant Hoophouse Spinach Now for a February Harvest

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 November Issue Newsletter

By Richard Robinson, Farmer at Hopestill Farm

November brings an end to almost everything growing outside in the garden, and spring seems forever away. But if you also grow in a hoophouse, spring can be just around the corner. Plant over-wintering spinach now and get a harvest in February of what will likely be the best-tasting spinach you’ve ever grown.

Spinach is probably the most cold-hardy crop you can grow—it will survive even outside the hoophouse, under row cover laid flat on the ground (see more below). Inside the house, it will grow slowly through the next couple months, and then really begin to take off as the days lengthen in early February. What is a tiny pair of first leaves at the start of the month will grow to harvestable size by the end of it.

Hoophouse spinach
Hoophouse spinach

Most other cold-hardy crops, even ones that will bear long into December, have a tougher time surviving through January. Carrots are the big exception: they do wonderfully, if you can keep the voles away. Arugula takes a beating, but if it survives, it will make nice leaves early on (I don’t like, and don’t grow, other mustards, some of which are quite hardy). I have no experience with beet greens, but am experimenting this winter. I’ve had only limited success with fall-planted kale (which in my experience wants to flower once it starts growing again), and the only lettuce I know that survives—a green deer-tongue—becomes tough and bitter (kind of like some of us after a hard winter…).

Over-wintering spinach tastes so good because it packs its leaves full of sugars in response to the cold and holds back on the oxalic acid that gives warm-season spinach that tang. That combination allows the earthy richness of the leaf to come through. My spring salad CSA customers tell me that they, and their kids, munch our spinach on the way home from pick-up.

Planting in November is just like planting any other time. I plant three rows in 30” beds, using an Earthway seeder. Transplanting is also a good option. The seeder gives a somewhat inconsistent and overly close spacing, and I occasionally thin. Ideal spacing for the biggest leaves is 5”, but closer spacing will also give a very good crop. Keep the soil moist until the seeds sprout, usually 7-10 days.

I am currently planting Gazelle, Kookaburra, and Reflect. Varieties change frequently to keep ahead of viral diseases, so I expect to plant something new next year or the year after. I leave my spinach uncovered through most of the winter, covering with row cover only on the very coldest nights. I do occasionally get a bit of damage on a few leaves, but it may be more from having water droplets on the leaves than from freezing of the leaf itself.

hoophouse
Row cover stands ready to provide an extra layer
of protection on very cold nights

Voles aren’t usually a problem until the leaves start forming a canopy, and they feel safer in the shade. Aphids can be a real problem, and I release lady beetles prophylactically in mid- February.

If you don’t have a hoophouse, you can still get early spinach by planting outside, and then covering with either row cover or plastic. Row cover should be laid right on the ground, since it won’t hold up to a snow load. Plastic is probably better suspended on low hoops held together with a ridgepole. The problem is varmints—I’ve had deer paw away my row cover to get at the fresh leaves underneath, and voles will eventually find them too. Nonetheless, I’ve gotten outdoor crops, with harvest beginning in April.

To read more from Richard Robinson check out Two Different Planting Options for Garlic Success.

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