New Zealand Spinach
After a surprisingly cold winter, we can finally begin planning our summer gardens. Experienced desert gardeners recognize that the warm (not hot) season is the best time for us to plant tomatoes, peppers, squash and melons, all those luscious fruits we enjoy so much. In fact, people who are not horticultural devotees rarely even think about a garden until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50°F. This is a pity, since it means they have missed growing the delicious leafy greens that thrive in cool weather.
For months now, at my home, we have been eating fresh salads harvested from the winter garden. Two varieties of spinach, six types of lettuce and a couple of kinds of kale, all in various colors, have been growing merrily since December (with a little protection from the coldest nights).
Much as I enjoy coming warmer weather, I do miss the nutrient rich green vegetables that start to suffer at temperatures above 75°F. When it becomes even that warm, many of these leafy vegetables go into reproductive mode as they prepare for flowering and seed production by bolting and becoming bitter. If you have ever seen a head of lettuce change from a sphere to a cone, you have seen bolting.
Packaged vegetables are available in the grocery store, but nothing is as flavorful as something that comes directly from the garden. How many people are stunned to discover that fresh lettuce is delicious, unlike the flavorless “iceberg” that is too common in supermarkets.
Rather than mourn the absence of fresh green leafy vegetables during the summer, search out some of the more heat tolerant varieties. Fortunately, a few can withstand relatively high temperatures and grow successfully through June. It might be a little too much to expect them to survive in July or August.
One candidate is New Zealand spinach. While not technically spinach, it does taste similar and can substitute for it in many recipes. Not everyone likes it as a salad green, but it is certainly a good fresh vegetable when cooked. It is native to New Zealand and several other places in the southern hemisphere, where it grows enthusiastically.
It produces highly nutritious succulent green leaves about two inches long and an inch wide. As long as it receives sufficient irrigation, it will tolerate our hot weather. As an attractive, low growing perennial, it can be an important addition to an edible landscape.
Another of these heat-loving vegetables is Malabar spinach. This Asian native is also called vine spinach, or Indian spinach, and is one of the few green leafy vegetables that thrive in high temperatures and full sun. Being a vine, it grows well trained on a trellis. This very pretty plant produces its tasty leaves on either green or red stems.
With either of these “spinach” plants, it is a good idea to soften the tough seed coat by soaking the seeds overnight before planting. They can be slow to get established, but as perennials, they will be productive for years to come.Dr. Angela O’Callaghan is the Social Horticulture Specialist for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Email or call 702-257-5581.