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Red Malabar Spinach

Red Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach is the plant to grow to fit the niche for “summer greens” in your garden. I grow kale and collards through the winter for greens to harvest fresh for our dinner table from fall to spring, but they don’t do well in hot weather. Neither does regular spinach, which likes the same cool temperatures as kale and collards. Despite its name, Malabar spinach (Basella alba or Basella rubra) is not related to regular spinach (Spinacia oleracea).

I first saw Malabar spinach growing in my daughter’s garden. She only had a few plants and they were crawling prolifically along the top of a fence that supported other crops. It was abundant, provided a cooking green for summer meals, and was colorful with its glossy green leaves and red stems. Last year when I put up the trellises over my paths I thought that was just the thing to try there. (You can read about those trellises I made from livestock panels at https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/trellis-your-garden-paths/. )

Green Malabar Spinach

Green Malabar Spinach

When ordering seeds in early 2013, I saw Malabar spinach offered in a seed catalog and ordered it. What I didn’t know is that there are two types of Malabar spinach. What I bought was green Malabar (Basella alba). What I was anticipating was red Malabar (Basella rubra). My 2013 crop of Malabar spinach had thick green stems and didn’t climb well. In fact, it was slow to grow at the beginning of the summer. Later in the summer it was abundant, but it never grew as tall as the red variety. I’ve had the pleasure of taking a sneak peek at David Kennedy’s upcoming book Eat Your Greens: the surprising power of homegrown leaf crops, published by New Society and due to be in the bookstores about October 1. Kennedy, who refers to this crop as vine spinach, says the red variety produces best in early to mid summer and the green variety produces best in late summer to fall. Both varieties will succumb to frost. That explains why not much was happening with my Malabar spinach early in the summer last year when I was anxious to have it take off up the trellis.

Red Malabar spinach on a trellis.

Red Malabar spinach on a trellis.

This year I am growing the red variety of Malabar spinach and am pleased with it. I planted the seed at the base of both sides of my trellis, but something happened to keep it from growing on one side. Many things this summer have kept me distracted and failing to replant when necessary, so that side never got replanted. The side that it is growing on looks great! I can pick the leaves from a standing position as I walk through my garden, harvesting this and that for dinner. Those red stems are edible, also. The path between two sections in my garden is behind the climbing spinach you see in the photo. As you can see, it climbs the trellis well, providing shade to the path, and is colorful. I just have to smile when I see it. If I would have given this crop any attention at all, other than putting the seeds in the ground one time, I would have had Malabar spinach coming up over the top of the trellis from the other side.

My friend Brent tells me that it reseeds readily, so to expect volunteers to pop up next year. In his book, David Kennedy says the red variety will do that, but the green variety often flowers too late to produce viable seed before frost. Malabar spinach is an easy-to-care-for crop in my garden. The only attention I have given it is to redirect the vines to the trellis when they stray into the path. This crop doesn’t have the tendrils to reach out and grab the trellis that squash plants have.

If you want to add a tasty addition to your garden that thrives in hot weather, I encourage you to plant Malabar spinach.Homeplace Earth

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lima beans on a livestock panel trellis

lima beans on a livestock panel trellis

Last year I grew pole lima beans for the first time. I had several tall bamboo tepees in a garden bed with a bamboo pole connecting them along the top. The plants grew up the poles and along that top bar with a mass of foliage. I felt the urge to step into the welcoming shade, but I would have had to step in the bed. That’s when I had the idea to grow them so they would grow over a garden path, rather than the garden bed.

My large garden is divided into four sections of nine 4’x20’ beds each, with a 4’ wide grass path between each section. I decided to connect five pairs of beds with trellises over the path between two sections.  Each trellis was made with four metal t-posts and a 16’ livestock panel. The posts were put at the corners of the beds and the fence panel was bent between them and attached to the posts with wire. I use old electric fence wire for things like that. You could put all four posts in at once, then with a helper, bend the panel and slide it between the posts. Or, you could put in three posts, add the panel, then sink the fourth post and adjust the panel. I wrote about using these livestock panels many ways at https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/in-praise-of-livestock-panels/.

limas-bushel gourds-limas on trellises

limas-bushel gourds-limas on trellises

It is no trouble to bend them into shape. Just anchor one end against something (a post or a person) and pick up the other end and walk forward. The 16’ long panel made an arch 7’ tall over the 4’ wide path. At 52” wide, this trellis is slightly wider than the garden bed, which is why I didn’t trellis every pair of beds along that path. It would have been too crowded getting in and out of the 1½’ wide paths between the beds.

In deciding what to plant over these trellises besides lima beans, I chose luffas and bushel gourds because I knew they would put out lots of vines that would last till frost. It is interesting to try new crops, so I also chose Malabar spinach for one of the trellises. Friends and family who had grown Malabar spinach told of how it climbed over everything in their gardens and I imagined I could just go out and pluck some leaves as needed for dinner from a trellis as I strolled through the garden. I learned that the variety that climbs over everything is Red Malabar. The variety I bought was green and didn’t do much climbing. I still took a walk in the garden and picked for the dinner table as needed, but next year I’ll be planting Red Malabar to fill out the trellis.

luffa hanging on the trellis

luffa hanging on the trellis

The luffas performed as expected, covering the trellis in a hurry. I will be harvesting 20 luffa gourds from one trellis! The plants only occupy four square feet of garden space—a 6” strip along the end of each bed. The luffa trellis has many yellow flowers poking out the top right now, although it is too late for the flowers to do anything but beautify the garden—which they are doing very well. One year I grew luffas along a fence and measured a vine that was 20’ long

bushel gourd

bushel gourd

I knew bushel gourds were good for lots of green vines. In fact, if you don’t watch out, they can get away from you. I had some growing 10’ into the beds on each side of the trellis before I cut them back. I let them go a little wild and some vines hung down so far over the ends of the trellis into the path that under that trellis would have made a good meditation shed or a children’s playhouse. As a bonus I’ll have five large gourds to play with. I finally cut the overhanging foliage with a machete and fed it to the compost pile. The luffa and bushel gourd plants will stay green until the frost kills them. Winter squash would probably finish earlier. That could be an advantage if you grew them over a trellis such as this, but then wanted them to be gone so you could cover the trellis with plastic to make a winter greenhouse. Seminole squash vines are pretty prolific. The description for Seminole in Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) catalog subtly warns about that when it says to give it “room to roam”.

lima beans overhead

lima beans overhead

This all started with lima beans. The variety of pole limas that I grow are Worchester Indian Red Pole. The description in the SESE catalog designates it as the hardiest lima and says it is heat and drought resistant. These are the ones I grew last year and saved the seeds. I let the seeds dry in the pods on the vines, so I haven’t picked any yet, but they will certainly be easy to see and pick. This has been fun this year and I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year. It is rather magical to walk under these trellises in the garden as I go about my regular work. I enjoyed the shade in the paths and didn’t notice any problems with shading in the beds because of the trellises. I already had these fence panels and old t-posts left from other projects. Buying everything new could get pricey, so use what you have, but make sure your trellises are sturdy. If you want to try this next year, plan for it now. In fact, as you clean up your beds and plant cover crops, put the trellises in now so they’ll be ready. I hope you have as much fun with this as I did!Homeplace Earth

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1"x2" welded wire garden fence

1″x2″ welded wire garden fence

Wherever you live, fencing is necessary to keep predators out and children, pets, and livestock in. It is important to consider which of those functions you want to accomplish. If it is to keep predators out, which predators would that be? That’s the general aim of a garden fence. If it is the neighbor’s (or your) dog, livestock panels will do to keep large dogs out. The spaces in those panels are 6”x8”. They are easy to install and to take with you if you should move. It will not keep rabbits, chickens, and other small critters out. Livestock panels might be your choice to keep livestock in. In All Flesh Is Grass Gene Logsdon suggests using livestock panels as a perimeter fence. You can read more about livestock panels in my blog post In Praise of Livestock Panels. One of the great things they have going for them is that they are rigid. However, that means that they don’t conform to the landscape well, making it look not so good if your ground is not level. 

Welded wire fencing with 2”x4” spaces is probably the most popular option for a garden and for fencing a backyard to keep your dog or children in. It is readily available at building supply stores. I like a 4’ high fence around a garden, unless you have problems with deer. I won’t address dealing with deer in this post. The spaces in that fence will keep most things out, but not baby rabbits. For that reason, I’ve gone to using 1”x2” welded wire fencing for my garden. If you have a dog or cat that takes care of the baby rabbits, that might not be a problem for you. When installing the fence, dig a trench along the fenceline so the bottom few inches can be buried. If you have trouble with groundhogs you might want to bury it deeper. Rocks along the edge of the fence will help to keep animals from digging in. Raccoons can climb over a 4’ high fence, and even a 6’ high wire fence. If they are a problem for you, maybe a border of something prickly on the outside of the fence would help. Welded wire fencing with 2”x4” spaces and 6’ high is a good choice for chicken pens. When attaching it to the posts, if you leave the top foot unattached, it might help to keep raccoons out. They can climb over it, but if the top edge bends out with their weight, it might discourage them. Besides keeping the critters out of your garden during the growing and harvesting season, a good fence will also keep them from grazing your cover crops. If you planted your cover crops at the right time and thought they were off to a good start, only to find they never got any bigger or even disappeared, it could be that the wildlife had considered your garden their personal salad bar during the fall and winter.

4"x4" woven wire fence in the snow

4″x4″ woven wire fence in the snow

Welded wire, like the livestock panels, can’t be stretched and doesn’t conform to changes in elevation. For that, you need woven wire fencing, which I’ve always referred to as field fencing. You would have seen that in pastures. It usually has 6”x6” spaces, but there are more size options available now. You might find woven wire fencing designated as Class 1, but keep looking until you find Class 3 galvanized. Class 3 will last longer. You are going to be putting in the same amount of labor to install it and you don’t want to do it again anytime soon– by that I mean anytime in the next 25 years or more. We installed a Class 3 woven wire fence 27 years ago. Just now some of it needs to be replaced, not because the wire is failing, but because our son pastured oxen in there for awhile when the pasture was inadequate and they leaned over the fence to get that greener grass on the other side. Otherwise, it would be fine and shows no sign of rust. A strand or two of barbed wire along the top or a strand of electrified wire, which we didn’t have, might have helped with those oxen. Moving those animals out sooner is what should have happened. That fence was originally designed to keep in goats and also worked well when we had a milk cow.

One of the size options available now for woven wire fence is 4”x4” and is called sheep and goat fence. If they have horns, sheep and goats can get their heads stuck in the 6” fence and in the livestock panels. We’ve had to take a hacksaw to a livestock panel a couple times to free a goat. (Heavy-duty bolt cutters would have been better, but we didn’t have any on hand at the time.)  When we decided to permanently fence an area in 2006 we went with the 4”x4” sheep and goat Class 3 fencing. One farm supply store only had Class 1, but thanks to the internet, I knew Class 3 was available. Ashland Feed Store went to the effort to get it for us—thank you Danny Adams. It helped that our order was almost a full pallet. If you have a large project coming up, do your planning carefully so that you can get your supplies all at one time. Often farm supply stores have seasonal sales on fence supplies and spring is a good time for that. While we were in the fencing mood, we decided to fence our barnyard. I discovered that full grown hens can’t get through the 4” spacing! They hop through livestock panels and can get through the 6” field fence, but stay put behind the sheep and goat fence. Fencing the barnyard gave us extra grazing if needed for livestock and allowed us to open the gate to the chicken pen during the day, giving the hens access to our whole property except the yard and garden.

woven wire fence corner

woven wire fence corner

If your property is the least bit rolling you will appreciate the fact that woven wire fence can be stretched and will fit to the contours of your land—provided it has the proper support. There needs to be posts in the low spots to hold it there. At the corners you need strong wooden corner posts with another post about 6’ away and a third post connecting the two. About every 100’ there needs to be another set of wooden posts. The rest of the posts (line posts) can be metal t-posts. It might be that you have a lot of cedars on your property and you can cut your own posts. We’ve been growing black locust trees for future fence posts. Some of the other options for woven wire fencing have 2”x4” spacing and one has a wire V within that. That fence is called diamond mesh or V-mesh. I’m considering that for the part of the garden that may have livestock pastured on the outside occasionally and it will also keep out those little rabbits I have trouble with. The woven wire with the smaller spacing was developed for horses, who apparently can’t keep their hooves out of regular fence.   

wooden fence with oak boards

wooden fence with oak boards

Chicken wire is a short-lived fence that might keep chickens in, but doesn’t keep dogs and other critters out. Furthermore, in a few years, it will begin to rust. That said, a 2’ high chicken wire fence would do for a couple years around a garden and it is comparatively inexpensive. After that the rabbits just jump over it, the grass grows up into it, and it will soon begin to rust anyway. Whatever fence you buy, notice the size of the wire. The higher the number (gauge), the smaller the diameter of the wire. A 9 gauge wire is thicker than a 12 gauge wire. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. I’ve noticed the welded wire fencing we got to replace some old fence around the chicken pen is a smaller gauge than what we bought 20+ years ago. A good source for fencing information and supplies is Kencove.com

Of course, you could go with a board fence. In that case, check a lumber yard for oak fence boards. They are generally available in 16’ lengths and are a full 1” thick, and 6” wide. Oak fence boards will last much longer than pressure treated boards. There’s lots more to know, so talk to people, travel around and take pictures, read all you can—then just do it. You can’t make mistakes-just learning experiences.Homeplace Earth

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