Sorrel may be considered a weed by many, but it ’makes real nourishin’ soup,’ according to Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and she was correct.
Similar in appearance to spinach, sorrel grows very easily in the Bay Area. Sorrel is far more heat tolerant than spinach and is less likely to bolt. There are actually two different types of sorrel and both are edible: common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). Common sorrel has a more bitter taste than the French variety, which is more lemony, but both have been used in soups and salads for thousands of years.
Sorrel description & lifecycle
A close cousin of curled dock (R. crispus), rhubarb, and buckwheat, sorrel is a perennial herbaceous plant commonly found in the grasslands of Europe, Scandinavia, and Central Asia. It is an introduced species in North America. The plants are dioecious, which means that there are distinctly male and female plants. Flowers are reddish green. Sorrel has deep roots that can help break up compacted soil.
Garden sorrel vs. French sorrel
Common sorrel goes by several other names: garden sorrel, spinach dock, sheep’s sorrel, sour dock, red sorrel, vignette, acedera, and narrow-leaved dock. “Dock” refers to broad-leafed members of the knotweed family (Polygonaceae). Common sorrel grows tall, up to 3 feet in height, and has many branching stems. French sorrel has a more prostrate growth pattern, usually no more than 18 inches tall, and leaves tend to clump together on the upright stems. French sorrel leaves are smaller and more rounded than common sorrel leaves.
Uses of sorrel
The edible juicy stems and narrow leaves of sorrel are packed with nutrients. A single cup serving of raw sorrel provides 15% of the DV of fiber, 16% Vitamins A & C, 5% calcium, 17% iron, 14% potassium, nearly 3 grams of protein, and all for only 29 calories. Sorrel leaves taste somewhat sour. It has been described as tasting similar to unripe strawberries or kiwi. Sorrel adds a good tang to soups, salads, and otherwise too heavy casseroles, and it has been part of the human diet for a very long time. Sorrel is the primary ingredient in traditional French “soupe aux herbes”.
As folk medicine, sorrel has been used effectively as a diuretic, for treating bacterial infections, to reduce pain and inflammation, and it is currently used in the herbal cancer treatment Essiac. Sorrel contains tannins, which can help dry out congested nasal passages associated with sinusitis. On the downside, sorrel also contains oxalic acid, which can cause problems for individuals prone to gout, arthritis, rheumatism, or kidney stones.
How to grow sorrel
Sorrel is a tenacious addition to your edible landscape. Sorrel self seeds easily, is drought resistant, and wicked tough. Seeds should be planted in spring or fall. Sorrel can tolerate shade, but it prefers full sun. Sorrel leaves should be harvested while they are relatively small, for the best flavor. As with all greens, it is best to harvest in the morning, while they are at their crispest.
Sorrel pests & diseases
Many butterfly and moth species larvae feed on sorrel. Other than that, sorrel grows pretty much uncontested.
Adding sorrel to your edible landscape not only provides your family with nutrient rich greens, it also adds biodiversity and improved soil health.
Spinach isn’t just for cartoon sailors! This delicious member of the amaranth family can hold its own in your garden, on a window sill, or growing on a balcony. Cousin to beets, quinoa, and chard, spinach lives up to its reputation as a nutritional powerhouse, but not for the reason you think.
Cartoonists weren’t exaggerating when they showed how spinach pumped up our beloved sailor man, but iron isn’t the reason. A single cup of fresh spinach provides 56% of the RDA for Vitamin A, 15% folic acid, 14% Vitamin C, 13% manganese, and 181% Vitamin K, and all for less than 7 calories! Spinach only contains 5% of the RDA for iron, but it does provide high levels of carotenoids, which helps prevent cataracts, and many other important nutrients.
As children, many of us cringed at the mere mention of spinach. Part of that was due to canned and frozen varieties being cooked into a stringy, slimy, green ooze. It also reflected the fact that a child’s taste buds are more sensitive to bitterness that an adult’s. Now that we are older and wiser, however, we can truly enjoy the crisp, refreshing, delicious flavor of a spinach salad. And freshness is the key. In fact, while working as a USMC Family Childcare Provider, I overheard a conversation that no one expects to hear: one toddler admonishing another toddler to not eat so many spinach leaves because it would damage the plant! You can read more about that here.
Spinach seeds & leaves
Much of the spinach sold in American grocery stores is the light to dark green, smooth, oblong- or triangular-shaped leaf variety. There are also varieties with distinctly crinkled leaves. This characteristic earns them the name ‘savoy’, after a cabbage with similar tendencies. Savoy spinach varieties produce thicker, more rounded leaves. There are also crosses between the two, called semi-savoy. Now, if you have ever planted spinach, you know that the seeds are rather large, especially when compared to other greens. Spinach seeds come in two forms: prickly and smooth. You might expect the smooth seeds to produce smooth leaves and vice versa, but it’s just the opposite! Smooth seeds tend to produce crinkled (savoy) leaves, while prickly seeds tend to produced smooth leaves.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is an annual that tends to bolt, or go to seed, as soon as temperatures rise. Bolting makes the leaves lose their flavor, but it can also provide you with seeds for your next spinach crop! You can collect your own seeds, as long as you do not plant hybrids. [Hybrids generally do not produce plants that look or taste like the parent.] You can also let them fall where they will, as I do. They always seem to find the spots that suit them the best.
Most varieties of spinach are dioecious, which means there are male plants and female plants. The ‘Bloomsdale’ variety is monoecious, which means each plant is both male and female and can self-pollinate. Spinach grows relatively fast. You can have harvestable spinach within 3 weeks, so you may want to stagger your plantings for a continuous crop. This is called succession planting. Or, you can allow your spinach plants to go to seed naturally, which can provide a perpetual bed of spinach for most of the year, plus the flowers provide nectar and pollen for many beneficial insects.
Spinach pests & diseases
Spinach is susceptible to many fungal diseases, including downy mildew, rust, fusarium wilt, and Pythium. The Rhizoctonia parasite can also attack your spinach plants. Aphids, whiteflies, rabbits, and chickens can also wreck havoc on your spinach plants. Personally, I conduct a weekly leaf inspection of my spinach and beet plants. A quick peek under each leaf makes it easy to wipe off whitefly eggs before they can hatch. These eggs look like clusters of tiny white rectangles.
How to grow spinach
Spinach can be added to flowerbeds, next to walkways, at the base of peas and other climbing plants, and anywhere else these fast growing greens will look nice. As a cool season crop, spinach can be started directly in the ground anytime between late August through April, here in the Bay Area. Spinach prefers sunny locations during cooler weather and some shade protection during hotter months. You can also grow it indoors, in containers, year round, if you have a sunny window or grow lights. Containers should be at least 8” deep.
Seeds should be planted 1/2” deep and kept moist until germination occurs. Seedlings should be transplanted at a time when they are most likely to survive, which means when temperatures are not scorching. Transplants should be spaced 8 to 10” apart. The same is true for seeds sown directly in the ground. You can make your soil more conducive to spinach by digging in some aged compost ahead of time. Spinach favors lighter, sandier soil than we tend to have here and it is a heavy feeder. You can add nutrients by side-dressing, which means placing aged compost around and next to plants. As you water, the nutrients will leach into the root zone and be absorbed by the plants. Spinach prefers a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. Spinach plants have shallow roots, so be sure to water regularly, especially as temperatures begin to rise.
Some varieties of spinach perform better when grown in the fall, while others prefer spring. I keep seeds of several varieties handy so that I can maintain a constant supply of fresh spinach throughout most of the year. Be sure to read the packet before you buy.
Since spinach only grows successfully in the Bay Area during during the cooler months, you can grow other plants during the summer that provide similar taste and nutrition. These plants are:
Spinach history & trivia
Spinach was first grown in Persia, around 500 B.C. The “Persian vegetable”, as it was called, was brought to China in the 7th century. Two hundred years later, spinach seeds made their way to Italy. Florence’s Catherine de’ Medici loved spinach so much that foods served on a bed of spinach became known as “Florentine”. Another five hundred years pass before spinach has a home in western Europe, appreciated for appearing in early spring, when food is scarce, and by not breaking any religious food rules. Spinach was even included in the first known English cookbook in 1390!
The name may be odd, but this nutritional powerhouse is easy to grow, even in heavy clay (though it prefers lighter soil).
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris vulgaris) is actually a beet that doesn’t develop the fat round root. Both plants, beets and chard, evolved (with some help from humanity) from the sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima). Swiss chard is also called chard, spinach beet, silver beet, mangold, seakale beet, and bright lights. The bright lights name is a reference to the brightly colored leafstalks (petioles), that can be red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, or white. They look as amazing in your salad bowl as they do in your garden!
One of the nicest things about growing chard is that outer leaves can be removed frequently and the plant simply produces more inner leaves, creating a long term supply of easy to grow, highly nutritious food. Chard is so nutritious that just under half a cup of fresh chard provides 122% of the Daily Value of Vitamin A, 1038% of Vitamin K, and 50% of Vitamin C, and all with only 19 calories! Research has also shown that Swiss chard provides tons of antioxidants and even type 2 diabetes protection. If that weren’t reason enough, the brightly colored petioles of Swiss chard make it a lovely addition to your edible landscape and these plants are relatively drought-resistant.
Like parsley, chard is a biennial plant. While it can tolerate light frost, exposure to too much cold will trick it into thinking it has experienced a winter and can cause bolting.
How to grow Swiss chard
Chard can be grown as a summer or winter crop. In areas with scorching hot summers, Swiss chard will perform better as part of your shade gardening plan. Chard seeds should be planted 1/2 to 1 inch deep when temperatures are between 40 F to 95 F. Mature plants can be spaced 6 to 12 inches apart, with rows 15 inches wide, but keep in mind that the plants will grow 1 to 3 feet tall, with a spread of 1/2 to 2 feet wide. Mulching around each plant with aged compost will help stabilize soil temperature and add nutrients to the soil.
How to harvest Swiss chard
Chard is a very satisfying plant to grow. Germination occurs in only 5 to 7 days and you can begin harvesting very early in the plant’s life. There are two approaches to harvesting chard: leaf-by-leaf or cut-and-come-again. The leaf-by-leaf method mentioned earlier simply means outer leaves are removed as needed. The cut-and-come-again method refers to cutting the plant down to just an inch or two above the soil line, avoiding the growing point in the middle. New leaves will emerge from this point.
Pests and diseases of Swiss chard
Swiss chard is a durable plant that has few pest or disease problems. You may find that an overabundance of harvestable chard is your bigger problem, but you can always cook and freeze or gift the extras. That being said, aphids, leaf miners, and flea beetles will cause the most leaf damage, while leaf spot, powdery mildew, downy mildews, and beet curly top can infect Swiss chard plants. Row covers can be used to block these pests and proper plant spacing, feeding and irrigation can reduce the likelihood of disease.
To keep yourself in year round chard, these plants can also be grown indoors in containers. Because chard has a taproot, a 5-gallon planter is recommended.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!