Perpetual spinach, or beet spinach, is not really spinach at all. It’s related to the beetroot but its leaves are so similar to spinach that they can be cooked the same way, especially when they are picked young. True spinach can be quite tricky to grow but perpetual spinach is much more beginner-friendly. As its name implies, it’s a “cut and come again” vegetable that will supply you with delicious greens all summer.
Lesson 1: Sowing the Seeds
1.1) Steady Performer
Many experienced gardeners find it difficult to stop true spinach “bolting” when exposed to full summer sun. Spinach beet is much more tolerant of open aspects. It’s also a steady performer in ordinary soil, although you’ll get better results if you incorporate well-rotted manure or compost into your plot.
1.2) Sowing Beet Spinach
After raking the soil into a fine tilth (prepared surface soil that’s ready to plant), mark out a row with garden twine and stakes. Use a hoe to make a 2cm-deep “drill” (channel) and sow groups of 3 or 4 seeds at 20-cm intervals. Cover, firm, label and water your new drill. Space drills 35cm-40cm apart. Perpetual spinach’s forgiving nature and all-summer cropping makes it a useful vegetable for containers. Pick a good-sized container around 45cm wide and 45cm deep.
1.3) Try These
Seed suppliers don’t seem to offer named varieties of beet spinach in the way that they do for other vegetables. If you want something a little different, give Swiss chard a try. Another member of the leaf beet family, it has spinach-like leaves and wide, pale, fleshy stalks. It’s as easy to grow as perpetual spinach.
Lesson 2: Nurturing Young Beet Spinach
2.1) First Growth
After beet spinach seeds have been in the ground around a fortnight, the seedlings should start to emerge. If you followed our advice in Lesson 1, the seedlings should be in groups of three or four, 20cm apart. Once they’re big enough to handle, identify the strongest plant in each group. Over a number of days, remove the weaker plants, starting with the weakest. This gives you some options if the “strong” seedling suddenly fails. If you are growing beet spinach in containers, thin the seedlings in the same way.
2.2) Get Weeding
Young beet spinach seedlings need regular weeding to make sure they end up as top dogs in their local patch of earth. So, get your hoe out and put it to work. Don’t wait until weeds are the same size as your seedlings before hoeing. Cut young weeds up before they have a chance to establish themselves. Don’t forget to water your young crop. Beet spinach is a thirsty plant that needs plenty of water to produce juicy leaves all summer.
2.3) Beating the Slugs
Slugs and snails are among the first deadly enemies your young beet spinach seedlings will face. If you don’t want to use pesticide-impregnated slug pellets, try surrounding seedlings with grit or sharp sand. Alternatively, protect seedlings with a serrated ring cut from a plastic water bottle. If you’re feeling really inventive, you can make a slug trap. Cut the shoulder and neck segment off a water bottle. Turn it round and insert the segment neck-first into the bottle body. Tape or staple the two parts together. Fill the trap with a sugary drink and place it invitingly close to your crop. Sit back and admire the results of your cunning plan…
Lesson 3: Maturing Beet Spinach
3.1) Encouraging Leaf Growth
One reason why beet spinach is a good choice for novice gardeners is that is far less likely to “bolt” than true spinach. When conditions are dry and sunny, true spinach can sometimes run to seed before developing any leaves that are worth eating. Beet spinach is much more forgiving in this respect but you still have to be vigilant: keep your eyes open for the formation of flower heads, especially if the weather is dry and sunny. If you do discover any flower heads, remove them immediately. This will encourage the plant to put its energy into growing leaves for you to eat.
3.2) Water, Water Everywhere
When you are cooking spinach it soon becomes obvious that the leaves contain a significant quantity of water. This implies that you’ve got to get plenty of water into the plant while it’s growing. A square metre of beet spinach plants will need at least 9 litres a week in normal conditions – more if the weather is hot and dry. Using a mulch of organic material around your spinach plants will help retain moisture and make life difficult for weeds. A black plastic sheet with holes for the plants will do a similar job. If you’ve decided not to employ a mulching strategy, you’ll need to get busy with your hoe to keep those weeds down.
3.3) Copper Protection
If you are growing beet spinach in containers, the same rules apply: watch out for flower heads, water the plants well and keep weeds down. Slugs can threaten container vegetables as well as conventional beds. They don’t mind climbing up a pot if there’s a juicy meal at the end of it! Protect plants by using the methods in Lesson 2. Alternatively, you can buy copper tape that fixes just under the rim of a pot. The copper tape naturally contains a tiny electrical charge that repels slugs.
Lesson 4: Harvesting Beet Spinach
4.1) Gorgeous Greens
Bagged spinach costs a pretty penny in the supermarket. But, in just a few weeks’ time, you’ll be scoffing platefuls of delicious beet spinach fresh from your garden – and all for next to nothing. Perpetual spinach leaves are normally big enough to harvest by the time the plant has been in the earth for three months. These last few weeks before the harvesting begins are important. Weed carefully, without disturbing the crop. Make sure you have a slug defence strategy in place. And don’t forget to keep up a generous watering regime: your greens will be much healthier and juicier as a result.
4.2) Picking Tips
Pick the outer leaves before they reach their full size. Younger leaves taste better and picking them encourages further growth. Even if you can’t use the spinach in your own kitchen, pick it nevertheless. Give it away to your mates or simply chuck it on the compost heap: saddling the plant with overgrown leaves will inhibit its growth. When harvesting beet spinach leaves, pick as close to the ground as possible and take care not to disturb the plant’s roots. Leave the centre foliage intact: the outer leaves of this section will become your next harvest “targets”.
4.3) Fresh is Best
Beet spinach is an excellent substitute for true spinach but its leaves are stronger in taste than its more delicate namesake. Younger leaves have a gentler flavour – another reason why it makes sense to pick the leaves while they’re still slightly immature. This crop does not keep well. Ideally, you should eat what you’ve picked on the same day. If you’re obliged to keep beet spinach, wash the leaves and put them in a polythene food bag. They will keep for a couple of days in the fridge.
Lesson 5: Preventing Beet Spinach Diseases
5.1) Keep on Picking
Once beet spinach plants are producing leaves on a regular basis, your main challenge might well turn out to be harvesting them fast enough! But don’t be tempted to leave older leaves unpicked. Regular picking encourages vigorous growth. One reason many gardeners choose to grow beet spinach instead of true varieties is because it’s far less prone to disease. Slugs can be a nuisance with younger plants (see lessons 2 and 3 for slug-busting tips) but beet spinach is generally only vulnerable to two diseases. And the good news is that you can reduce this vulnerability by good growing practices.
5.2) Spot Checks
Leaf spot is a fungus that attacks beet spinach, brassicas and beetroot. Older leaves develop round, brown spots that often wither completely, forming holes. A wet summer tends to make beet spinach more susceptible to this unsightly and destructive fungus. You can’t do much about the weather but you can influence the other main cause of leaf spot: inadequate thinning. Overcrowding is a no-no if you want nice, clean spinach leaves. Of course, picking spinach leaves while they’re still relatively young is another way of reducing the chance of leaf spot attack.
5.3) Rough Patches
Beet spinach can also be vulnerable to downy mildew, a disease more common in true spinach. Yellow patches form on the upper leaf surface and purple mould grows below. As with leaf spot, wet, chilly weather is a warning sign that problems could be on the way. And, in another echo of leaf spot, downy mildew is also more likely if you haven’t thinned the crop properly. If your crop is attacked by either downy mildew or leaf spot, remove the affected leaves immediately and destroy them. But prevention is far better than cure, so keep an eye on your plant spacing.