Swiss chard is a leafy vegetable that is a great addition to gardens now. It is reliable, productive and should be more commonly planted.
An attractive and often colorful plant, some types of Swiss chard are pretty enough for the flower garden.
A cool-season vegetable grown primarily from October to June, it is notable for having better heat resistance than other greens, such as spinach. Seeds or transplants available at nurseries can be planted through March for production of fresh greens into early summer.
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla) is actually a variation of the beet (Beta vulgaris) that is grown for its large, edible leaves rather than the root.
As with many vegetables, it’s not easy to trace back its history and determine its origin, but the country of origin, despite its name, is not Switzerland. It has probably been around for hundreds of years and was developed in the Mediterranean region — likely growing first in Sicily and then spreading to the rest of Europe.
What we eat
We harvest and consume the leaves of this plant. The leaf blades are large and fleshy and may range in color from bright green to dark green to deep purple.
A unique feature that sets Swiss chard apart from all the other greens is a thick, succulent leaf stem (petiole). It somewhat resembles a stalk of celery, and can be a wide range of colors, including white, pink, rose, red, magenta, orange, yellow and gold.
The mild-flavored nutritious leaf blades are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Indeed, Swiss chard is considered one of the more nutritious vegetables.
When preparing the leaves, the leaf blade is often separated from the leaf stems and cooked separately until tender. Cooking produces a mild-flavored green similar to cooked spinach. Cooked chard leaves can be used in place of cooked spinach in most recipes.
The colorful leaf stems can also be cut up and cooked with the greens, although you will need to cook them longer. Young, tender chard leaves can be eaten raw, adding a beet-like flavor to salads and sandwiches.
The stalks may be prepared separately from the greens. You can boil or steam them until tender, and serve with butter or hollandaise sauce as you would asparagus. The stems can also be chopped or sliced and sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic or stir-fried in an Asian-style dish. The color is mostly retained in cooking.
Among the flowers
In the past, chard’s large, fleshy leaf stems were either white or red, but today they come in many brilliant colors.
Swiss chard foliage grows upright, prominently displaying the vibrantly colorful leaf stems. It is an attractive plant that can make a colorful addition to ornamental flower beds. It looks great when combined with cool-season bedding plants like alyssum, pansies, snapdragons, violas and dianthus.
And it also is outstanding when planted in containers with other cool-season bedding plants. I can just imagine a well-grown Swiss chard, with blood red leaf stems and deep green leaves, growing up like a fountain out of snow-white alyssum billowing around its base.
If you already have vegetable beds prepared for planting, you can simply plant the seeds or transplants into those beds now.
If you are preparing a new bed, or reworking an existing bed, loosen the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, add a 4-inch layer of compost, composted manure or rotted leaves, sprinkle a general-purpose fertilizer over the area following package directions, mix everything together thoroughly and rake the bed smooth.
Plant seeds about a quarter-inch deep and about six inches apart. Keep the seed bed moist until the seeds germinate. What we think of as a single seed is actually a fruit that contains several seeds. So, you will need to thin the Swiss chard seedlings after the seeds come up, which generally takes about seven days.
Thin the plants to a spacing of 6 to 12 inches. Add the young plants that are removed when thinning to salads.
You can generally begin to harvest Swiss chard about 60 days after planting seeds.
To keep the plants growing vigorously, sidedress them when they are about 8 inches tall (the term “sidedress” refers to providing vegetables with additional fertilizer during the growing season). Sprinkle one tablespoon of general-purpose fertilizer in a ring around each plant.
Although Swiss chard is easy to grow from seeds planted directly in the garden, transplants purchased from a local nursery will provide the quickest harvest — particularly if you only intend to grow a few plants. When planting transplants, you should space them about 6 to 12 inches apart and plant them with the top of the root ball even with the soil of the bed.
The best way to harvest Swiss chard is to “crop” it. This is done by cutting off only the larger outer leaves. Cutting is preferable to pulling, which can damage the roots or stems.
You can continue to crop the oldest, largest leaves over and over again — giving the plant some time to grow between harvests. Planted now, you will be able to continuously crop your plants until early summer, when heat finally causes them to lose vigor.
Pull or hoe weeds regularly, although gardeners can save back strain and other labor by applying a generous layer of mulch to suppress weed growth.
Good mulching materials are leaves, other organic plant materials or even layers of newspaper. The few weeds that do come up through mulch can be easily pulled while still small.
If you have never grown Swiss chard, it’s high time you gave it a try. You will appreciate its reliability, ease of cultivation and the colorful, delicious foliage it produces.
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