How to Grow Malabar Spinach – A Complete Guide

Malabar spinach (Basella alba), is a nutritious and easy-to-grow leaf vegetable typically found in India, Sri Lanka, Asia and Africa. If you love eating Malabar spinach and would like to grow some at home, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about this delicious, healthy vine and how you can grow it in your very own garden.

What is Malabar Spinach?

malabar spinach on a plate

Malabar spinach isn’t actually true spinach, but due to its foliage it can be called a ‘green leafy vegetable’.  It’s known by many names including:

  • Vine spinach
  • Climbing spinach
  • Ceylon spinach
  • Malabar nightshade
  • Bratana

This leaf vegetable is a soft-stemmed, fast-growing vine with dark green leaves that look similar to spinach leaves. It thrives even in very hot temperatures (above 32oC) and tends to creep in colder temperatures.

Malabar spinach is often used by people around the world for culinary purposes. It’s a popular ingredient in salads, since it can be eaten raw and is also used in curries or to thicken soups and stews. It’s also popular in Chinese cuisines.

Rich in iron, calcium and vitamins A, C and B9, Malabar spinach comes with many health benefits including the strengthening of bones and teeth and improving sleep, digestion, eye-sight as well as the immunity system.

Growing Malabar Spinach

malabar spinach

If you’ve decided to grow Malabar spinach in your garden, there are a few things you’ll take into consideration such as temperature, sunlight and soil, to name a few. Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.

1. Temperature

Malabar spinach grows best in temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and above. Lower temperatures can affect the growth of this plant and it cannot tolerate frost.

2. Soil

Malabar spinach is easy to grow in various types of soil. However, for best results, plant it in moist, fertile soil that’s rich in organic matter. The ideal pH level of soil for Malabar spinach is 6.5 to 6.8. The soil should also be well-drained.

3. Sunlight & Humidity

Although Malabar spinach requires high humidity and full sun, it can also be grown in partial shade. When grown in partial shade, the size of the leaves increases, but the growth rate tends to slow down. Make sure your Malabar plants have at least 6 or more hours of sunlight during the summer.

Since the plant is tropical, Malabar spinach needs to grow in moist soil. Moisture is extremely important so if you live in a very hot, dry area, pay close attention to your spinach and water it regularly before the soil dries out. You can use a soaker hose to water it deeply and set up a timer. You can also use mulch to keep the soil nice and moist.

4. Fertilizing

Fertilize your Malabar spinach plants lightly every 2 or 3 weeks with a nitrogen fertilizer to help them grow quickly. Fertilizers that are high in nitrogen help the leaves to grow healthy. Plant your spinach in fertile soil during the spring and add some nitrogen fertilizer. You can add extra fertilizer to your spinach as soon as it grows at least four leaves.

5. Watering

Malabar spinach needs constant watering, about 1 inch of water per week. However, in warmer weather, you may want to give your plants around 1.5 inches of water weekly or they will dry out faster. Water them regularly and remember that it should be ‘shallow’ watering, not a heavy watering at one time. You can also set up a drip irrigation system which would keep the soil moist and healthy all the time.

When watering Malabar spinach plants, remember to water from below and not from above. Watering from above will keep the leaves wet and encourage the spread of fungal diseases.

6. Pests & Other Problems

Malabar spinach is usually resistant to most garden pests, which is why it’s regarded as a very low maintenance plant. However, one common pests that tends to attack it is the root-knot nematode. Root-knot nematodes can stunt the plant’s growth and vigor, also causing leaf chlorosis, which is the yellowing of leaves and stem. If you notice your plant suffering from these symptoms, check the soil to see if the roots are swelling since the problem could most likely be nematodes.

There are many different types of organic nematicides that can kill the harmful nematodes attacking your plant, but they can also kill the beneficial nematodes. Try fertilizing your plants with neem seed meal, oyster shell flour or crab meal which will strengthen their resistance to nematodes.

A common disease that attacks Malabar spinach is fungal leaf spots which is caused by the pathogen Cercospora beticola, that’s commonly found on spinach, beets or Swiss chard. If you notice oval or circular grey spots with darkish brown or purple rings appearing on the leaves, it could be due to this pathogen.

Remove the leaves immediately and don’t cook or eat any leaves with the spots. Do not compost the leaves as well since the pathogen will survive in the soil and can do so for up to two years. To get rid of it, you might want to use an organic fungicide.

When to Plant Malabar Spinach

This vegetable is highly frost sensitive and shouldn’t be planted outdoors until 2 or 3 weeks after the frost is over. What you can do is, grow the seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost so that the plants can be placed outside once the frost is well and truly over.

How to Grow Malabar Spinach

If you’ve decided to go ahead and plant Malabar spinach in your garden, here are some simple steps to follow:

  1. If you’re planting Malabar spinach in your outdoor garden, you’ll need to prepare a neat bed with very well-drained, fertile soil. You can also add an organic potting mix to the soil.  
  2. Plant the seeds in rows that are about 12 inches away from each other. They should be planted with a 1-inch gap along the row and covered up with about ¼ or ½ inches of soil.
  3. As the spinach plants begin to grow, check to see if they’re healthy and hardy. Thin them to about 4-6 inches apart. If they’re not thinned properly, the result will be weak and stunted plants. Thin the plants and give them enough room to grow, you’ll be able to harvest much larger leaves.
  4. If you’re growing Malabar spinach in containers, place the pot in an area that’s fully exposed to sunlight.  When the plants reach about 5-6 inches in height, they’re ready to be harvested.
  5. Don’t let your spinach plants drown in wet soil. The soil should be moist but not soaking wet. If you’re using containers, make sure the container has good drainage.
  6. Fertilize regularly for best results.

Propagating Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach is extremely easy to propagate since it can be done from both cuttings and seeds. If you’re planting seed, make sure to get fresh seed that’s under a year old. While Malabar spinach seeds can be stored for a long period of time, they can lose their germinating abilities the older they become.

If you’re growing Malabar spinach from cuttings, take the cuttings when harvesting the existing plants. Cut the leaves all the way back to about 2 inches above the ground, but be careful not to cut off the growing points. In about four weeks, you’ll have new leaves for a second harvest.

The Take Away

So there you have it! As you can see, Malabar spinach isn’t at all difficult to grow and it’s very rewarding. All it takes a little effort and patience to have your own endless supply of delicious and healthy Malabar spinach.