A lot of us grew up watching Popeye become stronger when he ate his spinach and defeat his archenemy Bluto for the love of Olive Oyl.

As it turns out there is more fact than fiction when it comes to the nutritional value of this delicious vegetable. While it won't turn you into an instant strongman, it does contain more than it's share of essential nutrients. Rich in vitamins A, B, C, E & K as well as anti-oxidants and many minerals, this is one of the most nutrient dense vegetables around, and it's easy to grow. Studies have shown, however, that commercially grown spinach is one of the foods most likely to be contaminated with pesticides. Even more reason to grow your own.

There are several varieties available and they are usually classified by the appearance of their leaves. Savoy varieties have deep-green crinkly leaves that are crisp. Smooth leaf varieties are popular in commercial production because they are easier to clean. There are also hybrid semi-savoyed varieties available.

This is a plant that loves the cool weather of spring and fall. Maturing in 6 to 8 weeks, it's a great crop to plant for quick results. It doesn't like the heat of summer, although, and will bolt, or go to seed quickly once it gets hot. There are several plants that are known as spinach substitutes that enjoy the hot weather of July and August.

A lot of the varieties that are available are hybrids. A popular open-pollinated variety is "Bloomsdale Long Standing".

In the spring, sow the seeds outdoors in a cold frame or start indoors 6 weeks before your average last frost date. Make several plantings 2 to 3 weeks apart for an extended harvest. Fall crops can be started 6 to 8 weeks before the first expected frost. The season can be extended with row covers. It can sometimes be over-wintered when mulched heavily for an early spring crop. Exposure to colder temperatures increases the production of sugars which improve its taste.

Spinach doesn't loose much of its nutritional value when cooked. In fact cooking (boiling for one minute) can improve it by removing a good portion of the oxalic acid that it contains.

If you are into saving seeds, and are planting one of the open pollinated varieties, let some of the crop go to seed. Once the plants have dried, you can collect the seed and save it in a cool, dark place for up to two years.

This vegetable is relatively pest free. Leaf miners and slugs are the usual culprits and are easily controlled. In the south, powdery mildew can be a problem. The hybrid varieties are more resistant to powdery mildew.

It's also easy to freeze. Blanch the leaves by submerging in boiling water for a minute and then plunging them into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain well and keep in tightly sealed freezer containers.

Besides using as a salad ingredient, there are lots of recipes that use this delicious vegetable. Usually any recipe that has the word "Florentine" has spinach as an ingredient.

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