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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

You call that spinach? A pretty, edible vine

Add red Malabar to the vegetable bed and you'll have fresh greens that surely will turn heads and won't be recalled.

October 12, 2006|Tony Kienitz | Special to The Times

RED Malabar spinach is not really spinach -- it just tastes like it. More important, the vine is gorgeous this time of year. With its Kool-Aid colors snaking up an arbor or trellis, the ribbed, fleshy leaves glisten in the sun, a kitchen garden oddity turned showstopper.

And for organic gardeners, a bonus: no E. coli (though more on that in a bit).

From midsummer to fall, red Malabar spinach, Basella rubra, grows in the most decadently abundant way. One plant can cover the side of a garage with a Jackson Pollock splatter of burgundy and electric green. Just pick the leaves to keep the vine in bounds -- an ideal routine for anyone who wants the garden to be beautiful but wouldn't mind eating some of it too.

In the fall, before cooler temperatures drive Malabar spinach to its demise, clusters of pebble-size fruit emerge along the vines.

Initially they look like sticks of rock candy, or tiny pearl broaches. As the days shorten, the fruits blush pink and then ripen into a deep purple. Tossed into a salad, these little gems are a gourmet's surprise. They hide among the leaves, then sneak up and delight the palate with a flavor akin to beets.

Malabar spinach will take as much water as the rest of your vegetable garden. High-quality composted soil is all it requires for planting. Seeds and transplants will be available at nurseries next spring.

Which raises the question: Can this spinach substitute be raised in the home garden without the same E. coli contamination that recently affected commercially grown spinach?

Eating homegrown vegetables may be the best way to protect yourself against food-borne illness, says Dr. David Heber, professor of medicine and founding director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

"Organically homegrown greens, spinach included, are perfectly safe," Heber says. If raised with homemade compost that includes no cattle manure or products made with cattle manure, "then you should expect to have no problems with E. coli or any other similar pathogen."

What about traditional green-leafed spinach? Now is the time to plant it. It takes a lot of ground to grow enough spinach salad to fill the gullets of an entire family, but if you're satisfied with a handful of leaves in your Sunday omelet, then sprinkle some seeds this weekend, next weekend and the weekend after that.

Sow them under the roses or beside the agapanthus. Let the spinach fill up empty spaces in your garden. Experiment and have fun.

Then, come spring, you can plant the pretty stuff.

Tony Kienitz can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The compost debate

IS the compost sold in nurseries safe to use in home vegetable gardens?

Following the recent E. coli outbreak in commercially grown spinach, gardening blogs have been rife with debate over the use of cattle and chicken manure as a fertilizer or composting component in home vegetable gardens.

Birds, dogs, cats, even humans can be sources of different strains of E. coli, most of which are harmless to people. The virulent strain involved in the recent outbreak, E. coli 0157:H7, is suspected of coming from cattle excrement. Humans get sick by ingesting the bacteria, which can land on the food's surface via direct contact or by washing or processing with contaminated water. Because the bacteria can form a sticky biofilm, it can be difficult to wash off.

No recent outbreaks have been linked to compost sold in nurseries. A spokesman for one major West Coast supplier, Kellogg Garden Products, says his company's composts are heated sufficiently to kill any harmful bacteria, making products safe for vegetable gardens. Some horticulturists say that home composting systems, if prepared properly and turned regularly, also should generate enough heat to kill pathogens.

Even so, other experts recommend that store-bought compost containing cattle manure be used only in flower gardens, not vegetable gardens. And the age-old common-sense precaution still applies: When you're done in the yard, wash those hands.

From Times staff

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