Malabar spinach is a criminally underutilized garden vegetable. Consider some of the attributes used to describe this vining spinach alternative and I think you’ll understand what I mean: heat-tolerant, highly productive, provides continuous harvests, vigorous vines, beautiful, hardy, and readily self-starting.

And of course, delicious. A delicious, vining leafy green.

In many ways, it’s a perfect fit for our goals at Nextdoor Homestead: lowering the food bill in a meaningful way on small plots. So if you’re in the mood to grow spinach but temperatures are too high and the sun too strong, reach for some Malabar Spinach seeds!

Types of Malabar Spinach

There are two varieties of Malabar Spinach: Red Malabar with its striking purple stems and berries and Green Malabar with it’s all green stem.

They grow and taste very similar, so most gardeners opt for the beautiful red malabar. It’s never a bad idea to try both to see if one does better in your garden.

Start Malabar Spinach from Seed

Malabar growers are often surprised at how successfully this plant self-starts (i.e. volunteers) the following year when the vines are allowed to go to seed. This fact should tell you something about the tenacity of this plant; it wants to grow!

Which is why you can absolutely start malabar spinach from seed in trays in much the same way you’d start a tomato or pepper with no special steps. For the best germination, keep the seeds warm and moist. I’ve found my malabar spinach starts germinating about seven days after planting so long as they’re kept nice and warm.

Malabar spinach does however have a reputation for poor germination and many gardeners like to process the seeds first to improve their germination rate. If you’d like to give that a try, simply soak the seeds for a day in water then gently rub them with your fingers. You can also gently scarify the seeds with a file.

For reference, 2/3 of my most recent malabar seeds germinated. These were planted directly in cheap potting soil and left outside during summer.

If you know someone already growing Malabar, you can also directly plant cuttings taken from the growing vines.

Finally, it’s very possible to save a few cuttings of your own and keep them growing inside in a dormant state over the cooler months to plant the following spring.

Ideal Conditions for Growing Malabar Spinach

Malabar has a well-deserved reputation for hardiness. It grows quickly, doesn’t suffer from a ton of pest pressure, and is even reasonably tolerant of a short drought. Here are the conditions we recommend for success with Malabar Spinach:

  1. Transplant your seedlings only once the weather is warm as malabar doesn’t tolerate the cold
  2. Leave about one foot of space between your malabar seedlings. We love outrageously dense planting strategies at Nextdoor Homestead, but Malabar will easily fill out that amount of space between plants even on a tall trellis
  3. If possible, plant in an area with reasonably-well draining soil as Malabar requires plenty of water
  4. While Malabar’s reputation for loving the warm weather is well-deserved, it still can become bitter if intense sunlight causes the plant to go to seed early. As usual, judicious use of greenhouse shade cloth is the easiest fix
  5. We say this a lot, but thick mulch is your best friend if you live in a dry climate when growing crops like Malabar from humid environments

How to Trellis Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach can reach heights of ten feet! Provide yours a tall structure to grow vertically for the best production and to keep it off other crops. Luckily, Malabar’s vigorous vines make it an easy plant to trellis.

Our Malabar is grown on an incredibly cheap trellis netting with secure attachments on both the top and bottom. This works great because the structure it’s attached to is very sturdy.

Other gardeners use simple DIY teepee or pyramid style structures made from cheap bamboo gardening stakes to support their malabar.

Finally, red malabar is sometimes considered an edible ornamental - a distinction I’d agree with personally. So consider growing one or more of your plants on a pergola or doorway arch to show it off.

Harvesting Malabar Spinach

Harvest leaves and stems from your Malabar spinach plant regularly to encourage new growth and better overall production. It also tolerates heavy pruning as needed to thin areas that become overgrown. In addition to maximizing production, regular harvests delay the plant from flowering and going to seed.

In fact, with proper picking your Malabar can produce throughout the summer until the cold hits!

While most folks seem to prefer the younger leaves, others like the taste of the larger, darker green leaves so be sure to try both and pick your favorite.

Finally, you may read that malabar spinach can be slimy. This is true and due to mucilage - a glutinous carbohydrate - present in the semi-succulent leaves. If you find this off putting, try to pick the younger leaves and eat them fresh rather than cooked.

Happy harvesting!