Grow your Own: Swiss Chard

by Caroline Pearson of gone to seed

Swiss chard is a leafy vegetable, similar to spinach, which deserves to be more widely grown.

It is one of the easiest vegetables to grow, tolerating neglect and most types of soil. With its glossy, crinkled leaves held above rainbow coloured stems, it looks attractive enough to grace any flower border. It also grows well in containers, so no garden is no excuse.

Often used as a spinach substitute, Swiss chard is two-vegetables-in-one with both the leaves and stalks being edible. Leaves can be harvested small and eaten raw in salads but the larger leaves and stalks are usually cooked. The stalks take a few minutes longer to cook than the leaves; to avoid disappointment always start cooking these first and throw the leaves in later.

Swiss chard crops over a long season and is difficult to find in the shops. Itís also one of the most nutritious vegetables around, containing huge amounts of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins K, A, and C. So what are you waiting for?

Choosing seed

Swiss chard is a member of the beet family and fortunately seed is widely available from all major seed suppliers. Unfortunately Swiss chard is often confusingly listed under a number of different names including silverbeet, beet leaf, seakale beet, ruby chard, and silver chard.

The white stemmed varieties are often claimed to be more productive and superior in flavour, the latter not being hugely obvious to my palate I have to confess. Try ĎFordhook Giantí or ĎLucullusí.

But for sheer wow factor both in the garden and on your plate, Iíd recommend varieties with multi coloured stems, particularly if youíre growing Swiss chard for the first time. Grab your self a packet of Swiss chard ĎBright Lightsí and youíll be rewarded with stems coloured in a fabulous array of oranges, reds and yellows.

Choosing a Site

Swiss chard will grow on most soils and is ideal as a crop for a newly cleared garden or plot as it isnít too fussy. It will even tolerate some light shade. However, for a bumper crop it loves soils that have been manured the previous season and a sunny, sheltered position. If growing in containers, donít forget to put a layer of crocks or stones in the bottom before filling with multi-purpose compost.

Sowing seed

Sow Swiss chard seed in April in seed trays or small flowerpots, burying the seeds about a fingernail deep. Pop the trays in an unheated greenhouse, on a windowsill or even outside in a sheltered position. Seedlings usually appear within two weeks but can sometimes take longer.

When the seedlings are large enough to handle (and probably fairly crowded despite your best attempts at sowing thinly as each 'seed' is actually a cluster of seeds) put them outside for a few days to toughen them up, bringing them inside again at night if the weather is particularly cold or frosty. Then plant them into their final positions outside. On my allotment I plant Swiss chard in a block with each plant about 30 cm apart each way, although lines of chard look equally attractive and next year I plan to use my Swiss chard to edge a path. Or, tuck them into suitable spaces in your flower border or in a container but remember that they will grow, so resist the temptation to plant too close together.

Alternatively you can sow Swiss chard seed directly outside in rows 30 cm apart. Thin the emerging seedlings to leave 30 cm between plants. Sowing direct is arguably simpler but I like to keep a close eye on my seedlings at home as I tend not to visit my allotment every day. The choice is yours.

For harvesting all year, try another sowing in August and provide some protection over winter (see 'Harvest' section below).

Care

Although Swiss chard tolerates neglect more than most vegetables itís worth making sure the seedlings are well watered to give them a good start and to avoid bolting (running to seed). A bit of weeding early on wonít go amiss to protect the seedlings. Thereafter, water in dry weather, remove any dying outer leaves and weed from time to time if you have the time/inclination. If youíre planting in containers, this requires higher maintenance; regular watering together with some feeding will be needed.

Swiss chard is rarely affected by plant pests and diseases. Slugs or snails may occasionally chew holes in the leaves, in which case try scattering eggshells around the base of the plants, use beer traps (remembering to change the beer every few days) or slug pellets (remembering to apply according to the stated dose as most people tend to over apply).

Harvesting

From an April sowing, leaves should be ready to harvest from July onwards, or earlier if picking baby leaves for salad. If youíre lucky, your Swiss chard will survive the winter and you can continue harvesting through to the following spring. However if youíve planted your chard in an exposed position, or itís a particularly severe winter, some protection may be a good idea such as covering with a cloche. Even if your Swiss chard plants look like they have succumbed to winter frosts, donít dig them up as they often start growing again in early spring.

Each time you harvest, take a few outer leaves from each plant, cutting near the base of the stem with a sharp knife or secateurs instead of pulling, and taking care not to damage the central growing crown.

Swiss chard doesnít keep well which I suspect is one of the reasons it isnít widely available to buy. It really needs to be used on the day that itís harvested otherwise youíll end up with a sad looking bunch of wilted leaves. Iíve read that the leaves freeze reasonably well but have never tried it myself; why bother freezing when you can harvest Swiss chard over such a long period of time?

Using Swiss Chard

If cooking Swiss chard, separate the stems and leaves and give the stems a three or four minute headstart before adding the leaves; a further three or four minutes should suffice. Chard can be steamed, simmered, baked in a gratin or stir-fried and generally used as a spinach substitute. One of my favourite ways of eating chard is also one of the simplest; leaves and stems simmered then drained and dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, accompanied by a piece of griddled salmon. There are numerous recipes available on the internet. You could even make an authentic Italian Torta Pasqualina if you were feeling adventurous.

Caroline Pearson is a horticulture student, allotment holder and volunteer gardener for the National Trust. She blogs at http://gonetoseed.wordpress.com

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