This is my first year growing New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa), also known as Cook’s cabbage, Carpetweed, or tetragon, and it has done very well. It survived the hot weather, although, not as prolific as Malabar spinach during the hundred degrees plus weather, with drip irrigation it produced. Now that the weather has turned cool, it has really come into its own. It survived the first frost, which the Malabar spinach did not and survived several other days into the low thirties and high twenties and is still producing here in San Antonio in late January.
Sometimes described as vine-like, the vines were more like a ground-hugging creeper for me this year, which filled and spilled out of over the sides of the 4’x4′ raised bed.
Red Malabar Spinach (Basella rubra v Rubra) is colorful, decorative, tasty and the perfect summertime replacement for spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Malabar spinach is also known as Ceylon spinach, Indian spinach, vine spinach, and Malabar nightshade. This hot weather loving plant, while it can be growing bush style, is best grown vertical on a tall trellis. The twining vines always grow well beyond my six-foot fence bordering my yard and, usually, Malabar Spinach needs to be cut back. This hearty producer will provide luscious green, with proper care that will feed the family all summer long.
You don’t have to eat it, my wife always says it looks so nice, and we usually grow more than we need just to have the green foliage covering our fence.
Nearly all of the Malabar spinach is eatable and is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. The thick, dark red-olive leaf, purple-red stem, pink flowers, may be eaten in soups, salads, Lasagna, stir-fry and more. Basically, they may be eaten in the classic ways a person may use the classic winter spinach or other greens. Both leaves and stems may be eaten. The mature fruit is supposed to make a good food die for frosting and other things, but in all honesty, I have not used the fruit for other than saving as seed
Small young leaves work the best for salads, soups, and smoothies. Larger leaves can be used in this way as well, but you may want to remove the center stem from the leave with a paring knife. The larger leaves and newly grown stems may be diced and used in almost any other vegetable dice you choose, using other hearty greens as a guide to cooking technique and timing. Usually, the mild flavor of Malabar spinach makes children more willing to eat it than the peppery-tasting cool-season varieties.
Malabar spinach, not only is colorful and eatable, but it serves as an attraction of pollinators. Many types of bees, both native and honey bees, find the clusters of pinkish flowers appetizing and, of course, they will stop by to help pollinate your pumpkins, watermelons, and other garden crops since they are in the neighborhood.
Care and Culture Notes
Days to Maturity
Classically Malabar Spinach is listed as 55 days to maturity. However, I think it depends more on how you start the seed, how warm the weather is, and when you want to start eating the greens from the spinach.
When to Plant
When the plant really depends on your planting method. There are several ways you could approach the planting of this Malabar spinach. The most common way would be to start your indoors and move them outdoors, which gives you a jumpstart on the season. In which case, you would want to start about 10 to 15 days ahead of your last frost; earlier for larger plants to transplant outside after hardening them off.
However, you may also sow the seeds directly in the ground and have spinach sprout along your trellis or other landscape feature that you’re going to have the vines climb. I would recommend planting them outdoors at least four to six weeks before your last frost if you are not in a southern climate. If you are in a southern climate and feeling risk-averse, plant them directly in the soil around the time before your last frost date in the spring.
In Southern climates, I plant seeds in the fall in a prepared bed in the late fall or early winter. This allows them to sprout when they are ready, which is usually before expected. Typically, they sprout during the cooler wetter days of early spring, then stall, at around two inches, until the weather gets above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, then they grow like crazy. This is a technique I actually learn from my dog cupcake. I had a season where I did not pull the plants in the fall and cupcake decided to dig inside the pot that I had been them growing in and buried some seeds. The following spring, the seed sprouted while the weather was cool, but warm enough for them to sprout, which was well before I had expected to sprout my seed. So, I have been using the late fall planting technique past four years and the approach has been very successful here in San Antonio, Texas.
I should mention, that Malabar spinach vines may be established directly from stem cuttings, but I have never had the need to do so. I always have more than enough seeds each year for planting.
Also, the seeds can take a while to sprout, if you want to expedite their sprouting, you may want to soak them between two layers of damp paper towels for twenty-four hours, before planting in a starter pot or spring planting.
How to Plant
Malabar spinach should be planted in a well-cultivated area, which can be on Trellis (the taller the better), in garden beds, raised beds, or large pots. The soil should be nutrient-rich, loose, moist and well fertilized. Seeds spacing should be six to 12 inches apart. Malabar spinach vines and spreads, so, you will want to leave a little space between it and your next trellis; otherwise, you will find yourself pruning the vines. You want to be sure it’s in an area with full sun to optimize your plant growth and it should be an area with easy access so you can get in with a pair of scissors or hand shears, on a regular basis, to harvest the new growth for your kitchen.
When to harvest
For Use as Greens
Harvest as soon as the leaves and stems are large enough to be able to be clipped and provide a serving without taking more than 25% of the plant at any one time. Take more than 25% of the total vegetation of a plant, at any one time, and you may kill the plant. I assume you will want more than one harvest.
For Use of the Mature Fruit
Once the fruits mature, turned dark purple, the fruits can be harvested. The fruits may be harvested singly, in clusters or in bulk. If picked individually, gloves may be desired to keep the fruit juice from staining your hand. At the end of the season, if your trellis is removable, then you can cut the vines at the bottom and remove the entire plant into an area for drying, which can be a quick way to bulk dry seed. The seeds should be cured for seed in a warm, dry area with adequate ventilation so that the seeds do not mold, mildew or otherwise rot.
Plant Problems & Pests
I’ve not had problems or pests while growing Malabar spinach. The only two that I have experience are easily handled.
The first being, fungus, which typically shows up with some form of a discolored papery spot on the leaf. I usually tip-off the affected leaf and throw it in the trash, but if it gets too far out of hand a little fungicide will hand will keep it in check.
The second problem, usually occurs with the seedlings, when they first break out of the ground, which are slugs and snails who eat the seedling plants. There are many ways to handle slugs, some organic and some commercial. Among those are slug baits, beer traps, and friendly animals such as toads.
While I originally acquired my Malabar Spinach seed from a local farmers market, they are readily available from various commercial vendors and seed swaps. Here are a couple of quick sources.