Over the past couple of weeks we’ve taken a look at kale, a leafy green vegetable that is nutritional powerhouse. While kale seems to get all the accolades in recent years, there are other leafy greens that are just as deserving of your time and attention. One such green is currently growing so well at Gypsy Family Farm that we’re pretty sure it has plans to take over the farm. That vegetable is the often overlooked Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris).
Not native to Switzerland, Swiss chard has a little mystery surrounding the origins of its name. Many believe that the term Swiss was inserted simply because chard was at one time scientifically classified by a Swiss botanist. The actual origins of Swiss chard seem to be from around the Mediterranean region where it remains an important food plant to this day. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about Swiss chard four hundred years B.C. and the Romans are credited with spreading chard along the way as they marched from country to country. In fact, the term chard is derived from the Greek for cardoon (carde), a plant that grows similarly large leaves and fleshy stalks. Technically, chard is not related to cardoon but rather is closely related to beets and spinach (all are members of the goosefoot family). Swiss chard and common root beets are both the descendants of the same wild beet plant with chard being domesticated first and root beets later. The roots of Swiss chard are not considered edible. Other names for Swiss chard include silverbeet, whitebeet, leafbeet, sea kale, strawberry spinach and many more. In many countries around the world chard is simply referred to as spinach.
Super easy to grow, Swiss chard is a biennial plant that produces a non-stop supply of leaves in its first year and then bolts to seed in its second. Available in a wide array of stem colours including white, green, yellow, orange, pink, red and a recently released “peppermint” (white with pink stripes), Swiss chard is pretty enough to deserve a place in the ornamental garden as well as in the veggie patch. Chard thrives in full sun but is able to tolerate a fair amount of shade as well which makes it quite versatile. For this reason, many people use the brightly coloured rainbow varieties to edge their flower beds. The soil preference of chard is a moist but well drained, rich and loamy soil. Grown in prime soil like this your chard can grow to monstrous proportions. If you don’t have the perfect soil, don’t despair. Swiss chard will grow in just about any garden soil there is. For best results you may just have to amend your soil a little with some good rotted manure or compost. Since the focus is on leaf production, plenty of nitrogen is in order.
Most gardeners direct seed their chard into the garden and then thin out the seedlings so that there is about ten centimeters between plants. While this works just fine, I prefer to pre-start my chard in cell packs and transplant it out when it attains a little size. This head start can help your chard jump past the weed seeds that are going to be its main competition. Pre-starting chard seeds is easy as they require no supplemental heat or special care. I simply plant one seed per cell in sterile seed starting mix, bury the seed it’s own thickness in the soil, water and place in a cool bright area. The seeds should begin germinating in just a few days and the tray can be immediately moved to an area of bright light to prevent the seedlings from becoming too leggy. One interesting characteristic of chard (and beet) seeds is that each “seed” is actually a case containing several seeds. The result of planting what looks like a single seed is multiple seedlings that will have to be thinned down to the strongest stem.
Chard harvesting can begin as soon as the tender young leaves are salad size. Many people find that raw chard leaves are a bit too bitter to eat raw so will wait for the leaves to become much larger and then harvest them for cooking. If you carefully cut the largest leaves from around a chard plant, the plant will continue to grow and produce more leaves. Harvested in this manner, chard plants can often be harvested from throughout the entire growing season.
The nutritional profile of Swiss chard is pretty impressive. Vitamins A and C are very high as is Vitamin K. As with other leafy greens high in Vitamin K, caution should be exercised by anyone taking blood thinners. Excessive consumption of Swiss chard can also be problematic for people who are prone to kidney stones. Swiss chard is also loaded with nearly every mineral required for a well rounded and healthy diet.
If you haven’t planted chard yet this year, there is still plenty of time. No garden should be without!