All about Swiss Chard

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Swiss Chard is lovely in mixed containersSwiss Chard is lovely in mixed containersSwiss chard, with its colourful stems and bright green leaves, must surely be one of the most glamorous of garden greens, looking as good as it tastes. It is also one of the most nutritious, and because its nutritional levels start dropping immediately after harvesting, it’s best grown at home.

Fortunately Swiss chard is just as easy to grow in containers as it is to grow in the ground, and is one of the few greens that will tolerate both cool weather and heat, lingering in the spring garden much longer than mustard, turnips, arugula, true spinach, or other greens with a tendency to bolt, and in autumn it will continue to grow until it is killed by a hard freeze.

Swiss chard is not true spinach and is actually a descendant of the sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima) a wild version of the beet that grew naturally in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago.  It is often referred to as “spinach beet“, except it lacks the swollen, edible storage root of beetroot, but produces large, crinkly, spinach-like leaves. Chard was known by the ancient Greeks, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions a red-stalked chard around 350 BC. However, it is difficult to pinpoint it in historical records because it went by so many names similar to beets, spinach, kale, and other similar greens.

Swiss chard 'Fordhook Giant' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaSwiss chard 'Fordhook Giant' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaThe first garden varieties of chard have been traced back to the largest Mediterranean island, Sicily, and the word “Swiss” was first used to distinguish chard from various French spinach varieties by 19th century seed catalogue publishers, and it stuck, due to its intensive cultivation in Switzerland. In South Africa it is often just called “spinach” and is used to substitute real spinach because it is more heat tolerant than true spinach (Spinacia oleracea) which produces fine quality leaves but requires cool growing conditions or it will run to seed quickly.

The Swiss chard we find in our markets, with its long white stems, is prized by Mediterranean cooks for flavouring soups and rice dishes. It is a popular vegetable in Provence, the queen of vegetables in Nice, and is grown abundantly in the districts around the Rhône valley. Swiss chard is also widely cultivated in South Africa and the most sold cultivar is the ‘Fordhook Giant’, and 'Lucullus' is another popular variety. The leaves of Swiss chard are always a beautiful deep green, but various cultivars like Swiss chard 'Bright Lights' are best known for their brightly coloured stems, which come in yellow, green, orange, red and white. All are available in seedling trays from garden centres, as well as in seed packets. The colourfully ribbed cultivars are attractive in the garden, but as a general rule, the older green forms tend to out produce their colourful hybrids.

Health Benefits:

Dark green vegetables help strengthen bones and are generally excellent for health, especially in older people. Swiss chard, in particular, is a powerhouse of nutrition. It contains at least 13 polyphenol antioxidants and is an effective blood sugar regulator.

It is also very high in vitamins K and A, and contains vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and C, as well as magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, iron, choline, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, foliate, selenium and protein, amongst other minerals.

In the Kitchen:

Swiss chard thinning’s and the tender young leaves are delicious in salads, and you can begin harvesting the outer leaves as soon as they are large enough to eat. Larger leaves can also be used, but will need the midrib removed, before being chopped finely into salads.

The stems can be steamed, grilled or roasted like asparagus, and the leaves are cooked in the same way as spinach. Be inventive when cooking with Swiss chard, and include it in quiches, casseroles, soups and pasta sauces. Lightly cooked and seasoned with garlic and olive oil, it makes a wonderful side dish, or try combining it with Indian seasonings, its applications are vast.

Although Swiss chard is best eaten fresh, it can be kept in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks in a loosely sealed plastic bag or container. It can also be blanched and frozen for later use, just like spinach.

Swiss chard. Image by Mabel Amber, still incognito... from PixabaySwiss chard. Image by Mabel Amber, still incognito... from PixabayIn the Garden:

If you want to plant vegetables in-between other plants in the garden or in containers, 'Bright Lights' with its colourful stems in shades of pink, yellow, red and orange, are perfect filler plants for herbaceous, perennial borders, and give structure to container plantings.

Companion Planting:

Many gardeners use companion plants to help create healthier vegetable gardens which are naturally less prone to pests and diseases. This is achieved by growing various vegetables or herbs together to create diversity in the garden, as opposed to cultivating large areas with rows of a single variety. A garden that is rich in diversity will help deter pests harmful to our vegetables, while at the same time creating habitats that are safe havens for beneficial creatures. Companion planting is a great idea when you need to grow vegetables in containers or have small areas from which to grow a garden.

When using Swiss chard as a companion plant, keep in mind that it can get to be pretty big when fully mature, and can crowd out smaller plants if planted too closely. Both vegetables and flowers will benefit from Swiss chard growing close to them. Tomatoes do very well around Swiss chard, and surprisingly, so do roses.  Choose vegetable companion plants that will mature after the chard is ready to harvest so they aren’t over shadowed. Beans and anything in the cabbage or onion family work really well. Try radishes, beetroot, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce and celery, they all thrive when comingled with Swiss chard.

Just like in life humans don’t always get along with each other, so it is in nature, and Swiss chard does not get along with everybody in the plant kingdom. For example, potatoes are not a good companion plants for Swiss chard, and neither is corn, cucumbers or melons, mainly due to the fact that these grow too vigorously and compete with the chard for nutrients and moisture in the soil, or they may foster pests which are harmful to chard. Chard is also not a fan of most herbs with the exception of mint, these two make great garden buddies.

Swiss Chard 'Lucullus' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaSwiss Chard 'Lucullus' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaCultivation:

Swiss chard is typically grown as an intermediate vegetable crop because it prefers the cooler seasons of spring and autumn. Optimal growing temperatures in South Africa are between 12 and 24°C, with a minimum of 8°C and a maximum of 32°C. However, under hot temperatures, its growth will slow down and the plants will require deep and regular watering.  Swiss chard will tolerate intermittent mild frosts but ongoing frosts may damage the plants and effect production. If you grow Swiss chard in a frost-prone area, frost cover will help to protect the plants, but ensure that the cloth does not touch the leaves.  Swiss chard does not thrive under hot, humid conditions, and in subtropical regions it is sown during the coolest months, and in cool areas that never experience a hard freeze, it sometimes behaves like a perennial, living for several years. When it blooms, you can cut off the blooming stalks and it will continue to produce more leaves.

Varieties of chard vary slightly in size, but generally grow 45 to 60cm tall and 30cm wide. They can be grown in full sun or semi-shade, and the seeds are planted directly into well prepared garden beds. For best results, sow 2 to 3 weeks before your last estimated spring frost date, and for an autumn harvest, plant the seeds about 40 days before your regions first frost date. For successive harvesting in cool regions, seeds can be sow every 3 to 4 months. However, for intensive cultivation in hot regions where its best growing season is shorter, plant additional chard seeds out at 10-day intervals for a month.

Swiss chard produces over a long period so it is essential to prepare the beds very well by digging them over thoroughly and adding lots of compost and some old manure, plus a dressing of organic 2:3:2, before planting. The plant is adaptable to slightly acid or alkaline soils, but if you do not have success, your soil is probably too acid. Avoid a pH below 6 and if necessary treat the soil by applying agricultural lime, 2 to 3 months before transplanting.

Swiss chard grows easily from seed, and because the seed is cheap and the packets usually contain an ample quantity, you can afford to sow a little thicker. Begin by soaking the seed in water overnight for better, quicker germination. Cover with about 1cm of soil, and thin out the young plants when they are 15cm tall. If you wish to grow them in a conventional vegetable patch, make furrows and sow the individual seeds about 25cm apart in rows 30cm apart. If you prefer inter-planting with other vegetables, plant them singly, or in small groups (see companion planting above.) Chard seeds often come in clusters of 2 to 3 seeds, so some thinning will be necessary to avoid overcrowding. To avoid damaging the small seedlings it's better to cut the plants out when thinning, rather than pulling them out.

Chard is sensitive to moisture stress and needs to be watered regularly, especially in hot weather. Mulching the soil lightly will help to conserve moisture. If the soil is good, chard usually does just fine without the use of fertiliser, but if your plants seem to be stunted, apply a balanced fertiliser like organic 3:2:1 halfway through the growing season. Pull up young weeds around your chard gently by hand to avoid damaging their roots.

Growing Swiss chard hydroponically:

There’s also the option of growing Swiss chard indoors with a hydroponic system, which ensures your plants get everything they need to flourish: moisture, nutrition, light, and air. Instead of growing in soil, plants grow directly in circulating water which delivers nutrition right to the roots, and the grow light right above them acts as sunlight.

Swiss Chard 'Bright Lights' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaSwiss Chard 'Bright Lights' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGrowing Swiss chard in containers:

Growing chard in containers is a great way for urbanites to grow some greens, and Swiss chard in containers does double duty, not only providing a showy backdrop for other plants and flowers, but also, if located near to the kitchen, easy picking. ‘Bright Lights’ is especially pretty in containers, but ‘Fordhook Giant’ is perfect too with its deep green leaves and heat tolerance. The plethora of colours available makes container gardening with Swiss chard a delight.

It can be grown alone in containers, or combined with other plants. It can even be overwintered indoors during the colder months for a constant supply of nutritious greens. And Swiss chard doesn’t even need a very large pot because the root system isn’t deep, but you do want to take into account the amount of large leaves the plant produces.  A pot about 25cm in diameter will be large enough, and a mixture of compost and potting soil will be fine, as long as the soil drains well. You can buy transplants or sow your own seeds, and if you sow your own seeds, they can be started quite early outdoors. Sow 1 to 2.5 cm apart and thin to space them 5 to 8cm apart.  Ensure that potted Swiss chard is watered regularly, and an occasional feeding with a balanced fertiliser for leafy vegetables will keep your plants producing new leaves. In hotter regions potted plants prefer semi-shaded positions.

Harvesting Swiss chard:

The beauty of growing chard is that you can harvest the leaves as they are required - it can’t get fresher than that! You can also start harvesting when the plants are only 15 to 20cm tall, by cutting off the outer leaves with a sharp knife, just above ground level. Continue to use the “cut and come again” harvesting technique by continually cutting the largest outer leaves, and leaving the young inner ones to continue growing.

Once the plants start to flower they will deteriorate quickly and should be removed.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Swiss chard is relatively disease and pest free, but lookout for aphids as well as caterpillars, beetles, slugs and snails which eat holes in the leaves.

The vegetarian or potato ladybird can become a serious pest, and is a problem is some areas on the Highveld. These ladybirds are larger than 'genuine' ladybirds and have a rather dull colour. They lay yellow eggs underneath the leaves and the eggs develop into spiny creatures that gorge themselves on the leaves. The potato ladybird normally breaks dormancy after the first summer rain, and can rapidly cause substantial damage to Swiss chard. If only a few are present, pick them off by hand or spray with a broad-spectrum insecticide, observing the withholding period.

In hot, humid regions brown marks can appear on the leaves, which then turn grey and rot. This leaf spot is a fungal disease and spraying with a fungicide will be necessary. To help prevent this problem, avoid overhead watering.

Caution:

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.