by Elizabeth Latta, life-long grower

Do you have a favourite vegetable that you thought you heard was easy to grow? And it turned out that you couldn’t grow it for love or money (or so it seemed)? Such is my experience with spinach and beets. Did you know that in Hong Kong they sprout their beets indoors before they plant them out because the weather just is not cooperative otherwise (information gleaned from a Hong Kong gardener)? Here’s a brief account of my frustrations with these crops and how I have partially solved the problem.

Our main garden is on a south slope, with hardpan about 6” down, the site of an old log dump which had a great deal of island gravel dumped so that the trucks could load the logs. So, think of Findhorn, born on an old gravel pit in inhospitable conditions, only think of beating your head against a brick wall trying to duplicate that situation with too many other things to do to spend the time to bring in the necessary materials for the 10 pound cabbages.

More specifically, my challenge first was spinach and second was beets. Apparently spinach doesn’t like to grow when it is too hot. So when you seed it outdoors at the end of the summer as you are directed to do, it doesn’t sprout. Then you try to grow it indoors in little flats in late August with an idea of transplanting it in September when the weather is cooler. But somehow, in September, they just don’t thrive and by the time the first frost comes along you have miserable spindly plants that would only provide spinach to a mouse (of which we have an abundance). I have tried again, in the spring, to grow indoors and transplant but somehow, if the spinach gets above 6 inches, it goes to seed immediately (I guess I planted it too late but it was cold….).

Last year I had some success. Though it all comes at the same time and goes to seed pretty much the same way. You know how spinach produces a multitude of seeds on each plant? Well, there is a reason for that. Only some sprout, only some grow to any sort of maturity and they are not a long lived crew when the seasons change so rapidly as they have been doing. But my solution is companion planting with peas. I planted both my peas and my spinach in February and covered them with remay. The peas came first and some time later (3 or 4 weeks?) the identifiable first 2 leaves of the spinach appeared. They never grew to the size you can buy in the store but they were totally organic with only the nitrogen provided by the pea plants as additional nourishment. (Though we have tried over the years to make the soil more friable with liberal applications of leaves and chicken manure.) I’m thinking that if I had thinned the spinach and fed them with compost tea or other such goodies, they might have got bigger but there was enough and I didn’t have to labour too much over them. Broadcast the seeds in February (a wee raking to cover them a bit) and harvest about 2 months later.

As I am getting so very much older, companion planting where I don’t have to weed much and the plants really do feed each other seems like the ideal solution. And as for those beets, I have tried the plant and transplant method but with really minimal success. I am going to follow the advice of a very enthusiastic new gardener who told me that she grows what she grows with success and what else she needs she buys from those whose success lies in other areas.

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