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How to grow spinach, Swiss chard, and beets in your organic garden

Tyee Spinach Growing in an Organic GreenhouseTyee Spinach Growing in an Organic Greenhouse
Spinach, Swiss chard and beets are all members of the plant family Chenopodiacae, otherwise known as the goosefoot family, and are all fairly easy to grow in an organic vegetable garden.

Get some goosefeet in your organic vegetable garden!

These are some of the most beautiful and delicious members of the goosefoot family:

Prepare your Organic Garden Soil to Grow Goosefeet

When preparing your garden to grow members of the goosefoot family, you will want to pay some attention to your soil pH (a measure of how acidic or basic your soil is). Chenopods ("goosefeet") like their soil to have a pH of about 6.0 to 6.8 which is only slightly acidic. They can also tolerate slightly basic soils that have a pH of 7.5 or so. In many parts of the USA, including in the Southeast, where I live, soils tend to be very acidic and will need to have lime applied to them. Lime, which is calcium carbonate, is a soil amendment which you can use in your organic garden.

Most of the members of the goosefoot family will enjoy growing in raised beds. Raised beds improve drainage and will help your soil warm up faster in the spring. This helps keep plant roots from being too damp and helps seeds to germinate faster and more successfully.

When you make your garden beds, make sure to mix any compost you will be using into the soil before you seed your plants. You want most of the nutrients that your plants will need to be there for them when they start growing. If, at any point in the growing season, it looks like they need more organic fertilizer, you can use compost tea or fish emulsion to give them a little boost.

Select your Goosefoot Varieties Carefully

If you want a steady supply of greens from your garden, rely on spinach during the cooler months of the year (late fall and early spring) and beets or Swiss chard during the late spring and early fall. If you take special care of your spinach by using season extension methods, you may be able to eat garden-fresh organic spinach all winter long. Your beet greens and Swiss chard have the ability to tolerate partial shade and, with a bit of protection from the sun, and adequate watering (about 1'' of water a week) they can give you greens all summer long!

Beets are an especially colorful member of the goosefoot family. They come in yellow, white, red solid-colored varieties and some very striking striped ones, notably Chioggia, a red and white striped one and Bull's Blood, which sports concentric light and dark red stripes. Beet "greens" are also very colorful and many of them are bright red, purple or tinged with other colors such as bright yellow. Red Ace is a wonderful, productive beet variety which will give you sweet, tender beets as well as bright, beautiful foliage to put on the dinner table. You can use beet greens in any recipe that calls for spinach.

If you love colorful greens to cook or to eat in salads, Swiss chard is a vegetable that should have a place in your organic garden! Swiss chard leaves are brilliantly colored with bright pink, red, orange and yellow and are gorgeous enough that you can display a bunch as a bouquet. If you harvest Swiss chard leaves when they are small, they can be used to add color and variety to your salads. Your Swiss chard plants are long-lived and will last for a whole growing season if you harvest leaves from around the outside of the plant instead of cutting the younger leaves from the plant's center. Swiss chard, like beets, is semi-hardy plant and can only withstand very light frosts.

The most commonly grown member of the goosefoot family is spinach. With its delicious, nutty flavor and its fast-growing, cold-hardy growth habits, it's easy to see why. When you grow your spinach, just keep in mind that it doesn't like hot weather at all! When the days start getting hotter and longer, your spinach will stop producing leaves and try to grow seeds instead, a process often called "bolting". Instead of trying to fight it, bid your spinach farewell until cooler weather returns and welcome some of its cousins into your garden. It's also a good idea to make several plantings of spinach during the growing season. If you seed a new batch of it every two weeks or so, you will get a much more consistent supply of tender leaves.

Try a Few New and Unique Goosefoot Plants

If you want to try new and different plants in your vegetable garden, the goosefoot family has a few interesting ones to try. Orach, epazote and quinoa are three unusual and interesting members of this family. Orach is a colorful, domesticated version of lambsquarter, a common garden weed (which is edible and very nutritious itself!). Orach is grown for its leaves which can be eaten either raw or cooked. It is very inclined to bolt, but if you pinch off the seed heads when they are young, the orach plant will reward your persistence with a steady harvest of big, pretty, leaves.

Epazote is an herb that is commonly used in Mexican cuisine. If you often try to recreate the flavors of a favorite Mexican dish but can never get them quite right, epazote may be the missing link. Like spinach, epazote is a vegetable that you will have to plant every few weeks in order to ensure a steady supply of greens to harvest.

You may be familiar with quinoa if you are a regular visitor to your organic grocery store's bulk foods section: quinoa's seeds are a grain that can be used like rice or couscous. In many parts of the US, the growing conditions aren't right for quinoa grain production, but the plant's leaves and flower buds are edible and its flower heads are a unique addition to cut flower bouquets. If you want to grow a truly out of the ordinary plant in your vegetable garden, quinoa is a good choice!

The goosefoot family, with its many nutritious, delicious, members, can give you masses of delicious, colorful leafy greens, beets and even flowers. So, there are many reasons to add goosefeet to your garden, one more stunning than the next.


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