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Swiss Chard: Underrated Garden Star

By Patty Glenn Leander
Contributing Writer

Cold-hardy greens such as collards, turnips and kale are excellent crops for Texas gardens, but as temperatures begin to warm up in spring, these greens quickly begin to decline. Swiss chard, underutilized and underappreciated in far too many gardens and kitchens, is a delicious leafy green that is able to tolerate heat, withstand cold, and look attractive while doing it. Its brightly colored stems and thick, crinkled leaves contribute beauty to the landscape and nutrition to the plate.

It is reasonable to assume that a vegetable called Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) would have origins in Switzerland, but in fact it is closely related to the garden beet which is native to the coastal regions of the Mediterranean. According to heirloom vegetable expert William Woys Weaver, chard has been cultivated “since classical antiquity,” and its nomenclature has gone through many incarnations.

The stems of chard closely resemble those of cardoon, and the French word cardons was used to denote both vegetables, though botanically they are not related. To further confuse the matter, the leafy vegetable chard with the colorful stems was also known in France as Chilean beet. In Italy it was referred to as white beet, to British gardeners it was silver beet or sea kale beet and early American settlers knew it as beet chard. The stems come in an array of dazzling colors — orange, magenta, crimson, yellow and pink — which are often sold under the common descriptor of “rainbow chard.” Some older horticultural records refer to the green-leaved chard with broad white stems as Swiss chard, but today chard and Swiss chard are used interchangeably. Chard was prized by the Greeks and Romans for its medicinal properties, and modern science affirms this belief. It is a valuable and often overlooked source of many nutrients, including vitamins A, C and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber.

Interest in heirloom vegetables, particularly tomatoes, has caught on over the last few years, though many Texas gardeners have experienced disappointment at the hands of such unpredictable varieties as ‘Brandywine’ or ‘Mortgage Lifter.’ But not all heirlooms are so fickle. Leave that heartbreak behind and turn instead to an heirloom that actually likes our growing conditions! Swiss chard is an ideal specimen for Texas and is well-adapted across the entire state. It prefers full sun in cold weather but will tolerate partial shade, especially as spring temperatures begin to rise and sunlight intensifies. Consider planting it at the edge of a deciduous tree where it will receive full sun in winter and a leafy canopy to provide protection from the hot afternoon sun in summer, or tuck it into an ornamental bed where it might benefit from the dappled shade offered by neighboring shrubs or perennials. Chard is not particular about soil and even prefers the slightly alkaline conditions that are found throughout much of the state. Highly acidic soils may require the addition of lime; check with your county extension agent or submit a soil sample for testing. Poor soils can be improved by mixing in 1 to 2 inches of organic matter such as compost, grass clippings or decomposed leaves. If you garden in areas with heavy rainfall (if there is such a thing anymore), plant in raised beds to ensure adequate drainage. Swiss chard is an ideal plant for a square-foot garden and will also do well in a 2–3 gallon container that is at least 8 to 10 inches deep. Take advantage of Swiss chard’s ornamental color and stature, and combine it with complimentary cool-season annuals and/or culinary herbs in a larger container.

Swiss chard is not susceptible to serious pests or disease, though rainy weather or wet conditions can invite risk for a fungal disease called Cercospora leaf spot. Maintain proper spacing to encourage good air circulation, keep soil surface well mulched and remove affected leaves promptly to keep this disease in check. Marauding caterpillars can be thwarted with a dusting of Bt, and insecticidal soap and spinosad products are low-toxicity controls for aphids and flea beetles. Row cover fabric will deter annoying pests and will also protect plants when frost threatens. Swiss chard is quite hardy and has survived sleet, snow and cold snaps in my Central Texas garden, but gardeners across the state will want to protect it when temperatures threaten to drop into the 20s, especially for extended periods.

As urban and suburban gardeners try to coax the most from their landscape, Swiss chard has gained recognition as a space-efficient, easy-to-grow and good-for-you vegetable that is at home in a kitchen garden as well as an ornamental bed. Transplants are available in garden centers, but you can save money by growing your own or sowing seeds directly in the garden. Swiss chard seeds will sprout in cool soils (50º F) and spring-sowing can begin 3 to 4 weeks before the last average frost for your area. Speed up germination by soaking seeds in tepid water for several hours before planting and keep the soil moist until seedlings are established. Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart, thinning to 12 to 15 inches when plants reach about 4 inches in height (be sure to eat the thinnings). The pebbly chard seed is actually a fruitlet cluster made up of several seeds, and after germination adjoining sprouts may have intertwined roots. When thinning, avoid disturbing these fragile roots by snipping or pinching off unwanted seedlings just above the soil line. If given sufficient room to grow, most chard varieties will reach a height of 1-1/2 to 2 feet, reaching their mature size in about 55 to 60 days, although young leaves can be harvested as baby greens as quick as 30–40 days after sowing. Plants that are spaced closer together (6 to 8 inches) will not grow large but will offer a continuous supply of young, tender leaves.

Chard is like the Energizer bunny of the garden — it just keeps going and going. There is no reason to harvest an entire plant; three or four large outer leaves can be cut from an individual plant, allowing the inner leaves to continue production. Be sure to mulch your plants well throughout the year and give them a nitrogen boost every 4 weeks by applying a water-soluble fertilizer or by side­dressing with 1/4 cup of granular fertilizer per 10 feet of row.

Because it tolerates both heat and cold, chard can remain productive over two or three seasons, especially in those years when we do not experience extreme summer or winter temperatures. Over time, you may notice a thick root forming at the base of the plant — perfectly normal, though not edible. Swiss chard is hardy and resilient, but it does have its limits. Hellacious summers, like the one we experienced in 2011, may cause leaves to be tough and bitter. Under such circumstances, you may be better off discarding spent plants and sowing a new crop in another spot in the garden in fall. Or try rejuvenating growth by cutting the entire plant a few inches above the crown. Sprinkle 1–2 tablespoons of fertilizer around the perimeter of the plant and tender, new growth will soon emerge.

To harvest Swiss chard, use a sharp knife or clippers to cut off the stalks of individual leaves at the base. Some gardeners (myself included) harvest by twisting and snapping the stems, but be careful to make a clean break as any remaining stubble can become an entry point for insects and disease. Rinse well after harvest and cut the stems from the leaves before storing. Stack the leaves and wrap loosely in paper towels or a tea towel, place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator up to a week. Store stems separately in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Excess chard is easy to freeze: blanch leaves for two minutes in a large pot of boiling water, transfer to a bowl of ice water to cool, drain well by gently squeezing water out of leaves and place in freezer bags or plastic containers. Label and date before storing in the freezer and eat within 6 to 12 months.

Whether you are growing Swiss chard to eat or to admire, there are numerous varieties to choose from, and I have never met a variety I didn’t like. Classic varieties like ‘Lucullus’ and ‘Fordhook Giant’ have broad white stems with thick, crinkled green leaves. Both are heirlooms and have proved themselves to be sturdy, reliable and productive. Green and white chards are generally more vigorous and resistant to leaf spot than colored varieties. ‘Lucullus’ was introduced to America at the end of the 19th century, and ‘Fordhook Giant’ was introduced by W. Atlee Burpee in 1934. Its name comes from the Fordhook Farm, Burpee’s extensive test garden in Pennsylvania. ‘Silverado’ is a more compact green and white variety; its one drawback is that sand can get trapped in its heavily savoyed leaves, so it will require thorough rinsing. The colored varieties may be a little more temperamental, but they are worth the extra attention. ‘Bright Lights,’ a popular All-America Selections winner from 1998, boasts stalks in a dazzling rainbow of color with shiny leaves that have a mild flavor. ‘Magenta Sunset’ features dark green leaves attached to thin and tender stalks that look like magenta-colored celery and ‘Pink Lipstick’ matures into lovely green leaves with stems and veins in varying shades of pink. ‘Golden Sunrise’ and ‘Orange Fantasia’ both have glossy, dark green leaves atop broad golden stalks. ‘Rhubarb,’ an heirloom from the Civil War era, has ruby-colored stems and veins (it is sometimes referred to as ‘Ruby’ chard) which contrast with bright green leaves. At first glance it has excitedly been mistaken for rhubarb by visitors to my garden — quite a letdown when I inform them that the stately plant with the crimson stalks and large, beautiful leaves is an imposter that tastes nothing like rhubarb. ‘Bionda di Lyon,’ ‘Verde da Taglio’ and other Italian varieties are worth experimenting with in our Texas landscapes. Vegetable expert and variety tester Bill Adams is a fan of ‘Verde da Taglio’ as a container specimen. I seeded it directly in my garden last spring and it stood up to the summer of 2011 without croaking, so I am a fan as well!

Chard’s versatility follows it into the kitchen, where it can be utilized as an ingredient at any meal. Chopped and sautéed leaves can fill a quiche or omelet; fresh, young leaves can be added to a salad for lunch; and cooked and seasoned greens provide a nourishing side dish for supper. Swiss chard is a cousin to spinach, and its leaves can serve as a substitute in most recipes. Cooked leaves can be added to lasagna, enchiladas or casseroles, and raw leaves can be sliced into ribbons as a nutritious addition to slaw. For a quick and healthy preparation, just rinse a large handful of young leaves, shake off excess water and throw them into a skillet over medium heat. Cover with a lid for a few minutes and the water that clings to the leaves will create sufficient steam to wilt the greens. Serve with a vinaigrette dressing or simply season with salt, pepper and a few shakes of your favorite vinegar or pepper sauce. It is a good idea to use more leaves than you think you will need as the large, robust leaves will shrink significantly during cooking.

Enhance the flavor of Swiss chard dishes by adding nuts, dried cranberries, lemon juice, feta or parmesan cheese, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, olive oil or chopped bacon. I told you it was versatile! Large, tough leaves can be combined and cooked with other greens, or added to soups to boost flavor, texture and nutrition. Many phytonutrients that provide antioxidant benefits are found in the colorful pigments of vegetables, and the veins and ribs of Swiss chard are no exception. The thick and fleshy stalks can be sliced thinly and added to stir-fry dishes, soups or stews or they can be cut into spears or wedges and braised and buttered to serve as a side dish on their own. The colored stalks, which lose most of their color during cooking, can be more fibrous than the white varieties; so experiment with different varieties and cooking times. When leaves of Swiss chard are worn out from weather, wind or pests, the ribs are largely unfazed and perfectly edible. I’ll remove the tattered leaves and toss them into the compost pile, then head to the kitchen to prepare yet another health-promoting dish with that satisfying “I-grew-it-myself” flavor.

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