July 4th, 2008
Spinach is such a prima donna in my garden. We tend to go from winter to summer weather abruptly, and even when fall planted, spinach is likely to bolt before we get much out of it. Some years we have a great planting or two, but more often I find myself wondering why I bothered to plant it.
There are plenty of greens that can be substituted for spinach, both raw and cooked, but over the years, nothing we’ve tried has particularly knocked me out in terms of culinary quality combined with ease of culture. That is, until getting to know chenopodium capitatum, aka beetberry, or strawberry blite.
Let’s call it “beetberry.” “Strawberry blite” certainly does not do it justice. It volunteers very freely, meaning it grows like a weed. I like that, and haven’t sown it since we first got it quite a few years ago. It pops up everywhere, and any time of the season, so when weeding, I just leave some plants here and there, and also eat the “weedings”. It has both annual and biennial tendencies.
Last fall I left a few that had managed to colonize the more finished cooled-down compost piles, and when the snow retreated in April, there they were, growing like crazy. I am pretty fastidious about keeping a clear zone around the compost area (the flame weeder’s great for that), but I’m a sucker for uber healthy volunteers. Fortunately we had enough compost so that I could work around them.
Here they are. That’s just 3 plants, and they’d had a lot of leaves picked from them daily for about 3 weeks when the photo was taken. They certainly responded to the 100% compost! Some of the leaves are the size of my hand, and even though the plants are bolting, they are still making large tender leaves.
And here is the fruit, the beetberry. The color alone is wonderful in the garden, but the fruits are also quite delicious when well grown. Structurally, they are a bit like a raspberry’s cluster of drupelets. The fleshy part is juicy and tender, so delicate that if you touch the ripe beet berry you will get beet red juice on your fingers. The flavor has more than a hint of beet (they’re cousins, after all), and when fully sun ripened they are quite sweet, and a really nice salad component. This is one of those vegetables that you really have to grow yourself. The berries are probably too delicate for a farmer’s market.
Later this season I’ll sow a variety of beetberry called “Sweeter”, to see how the seedlings overwinter. It was bred by Peters Seed and Research to be sweeter and more biennial. Of course, I’ll also take some seed from the compost giants, and see if I can get a repeat performance in a generously fed garden bed.