Green Man Publishing

Chard

Beta vulgaris varcicla

Introduction: Chard is the same species as the beet, but is grown for its edible foliage rather than the root. Though it is often called Swiss chard, it was first domesticated somewhere in the Mediterranean and was prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans for its nutritional and medicinal value.

Climate: Chard is a cool season crop, preferring to grow at 45°F – 75°F. It can grow in warmer conditions, but the leaves tend to be smaller and inferior in flavor. It can also tolerate some frost and in milder areas will continue to grow right through the winter.

Ease of growing: This is one of the easiest vegetables to grow, very productive, little bothered by pests or disease and resistant to both heat and cold. I highly recommend it as an almost foolproof potherb for the small garden.

Crop value: A useful crop because it has a long productive season (as a biennial it isn’t prone to bolting in its first year) and is a nutritious green leafy vegetable.

Nutritional content: The leaves are considered to be one of the most nutritious of the common green vegetables. They contain large amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. They also contain no less than 13 (count em) antioxidants and a host of other phytonutrients, too numerous to name. They are not a great energy source, only having about 85 calories per pound.

Chard also contain oxalic acid, which can inhibits the absorption of calcium to some degree (see Spinach for more on this).

About Chard  

Seed facts
Germ temp: 50 – 85˚F
Germ time: 5 – 21 days
42 days / 41˚F
16 days / 50˚F
9 days / 59˚F
6 days / 68˚F
5 days / 77˚F * Optimum
5 days / 86˚F
Viability: 5 years
Germination percentage: 60%+
Weeks to grow transplants: 3 – 4  

Planning facts
Hardiness: Hardy
Growing temp: 45 (60 – 70) 75˚F
Plants per person: 10
Plants per sq ft: 4
Days to harvest: 50 – 60  

Planting
Transplants:
Start: 4 wks before last frost date
Plant out: on last frost date
Direct sow on the last frost date
Fall: Plant 10 – 12 wks before first fall frost  

Harvest facts
Harvest period: up to 30 weeks
Yield per plant: 10 oz (or more)
Yield per sq ft: 2 to 8 lb sq ft  

Soil

pH 6.0 ‑ 6.8

Chard has a deep, strong root system that is able to seek out the nutrients it needs, so it can grow well on fairly poor soil. However for highest yield it does best in a fertile garden soil, rich in humus, well-drained and not too acidic.

Soil preparation: Incorporate 2˝ of compost or aged manure into the top 6˝ of soil. Add dolomitic lime (to raise the pH and to supply magnesium) and wood ashes (to raise the pH and supply potassium).

Planning

Chard is cultivated in much the same way as beet, but it is easier to grow as it only has to produce foliage.

Where: In cool climates chard needs full sun for maximum production of foliage. It doesn’t like high temperatures, so in hot climates it should be grown in part shade. It is one of the most shade tolerant of common crops.

When: Chard is quite hardy, but it germinates slowly at low temperatures, so is usually planted out around the last frost date.

Planting

As with the beet, each “seed” is actually a cluster of flowers fused together, each containing a single seed. This is why you end up with several plants, when you plant one seed. You can gently break up these clusters and get individual seeds to plant.

The seed clusters contain a water-soluble germination inhibitor, which can be leached out by soaking the seed overnight prior to planting. Don’t simply soak them in a glass of water overnight however, as they may absorb water so quickly, they can be damaged. Instead they should be put on a damp paper towel, so they can absorb moisture slowly. You could take this one step further and actually pre‑germinate the seeds before planting.

Transplants

Starting inside: Chard doesn’t really like root disturbance, though it will tolerate it when young. For this reason it is usually grown in cell packs, plug trays or soil blocks. Germination is quite uneven, so seeds may continue to emerge for a week or more.

Planting out: Set out the transplants on the last frost date. Don’t let them get too large inside, otherwise exposure to temperatures below 50˚F (for two weeks), could vernalize them. They will then bolt as soon as it gets warmer. If cold weather threatens, you should protect the newly planted seedlings with cloches or row covers.

Direct sowing: This is pretty straightforward and is the preferred method of growing chard.

Broadcasting: Scatter the seeds so they are spaced about 2 – 3˝ apart and cover with a ½˝ of cover soil mix.

Rows: Make furrows ½ – ¾˝ deep, plant the seeds 1½˝ apart and re-fill with topsoil. If the soil isn’t very good, you could cover with a mix of half soil and half compost.

Thinning: When all of the seeds have germinated, you can start thinning. Don’t start too early though, as some may be damaged by cutworms, slugs, or other pests.

Thinning is best done in several stages, as the plants get larger. You can use the thinnings for food, or as transplants (they transplant fairly well if less than 3˝ tall). The clusters don’t need much thinning, as the strongest plant tends to take over.

Spacing: Chard grows fast and gets quite large so needs plenty of space. Plant it 8 – 12˝ apart, depending upon the fertility of the soil and the growing methods.

Care

Chard is a robust and undemanding plant. Keep it well fed and watered and it should produce abundantly.

Water: Chard is relatively drought tolerant, though for highest quality and yields it should be well supplied with water. It is particularly important to keep the soil evenly moist in hot weather, as lack of water can encourage bolting.

Fertilization: If you are going to be harvesting intensively, you should feed the plants regularly with compost tea or liquid kelp.

Mulch: This helps to keep down weeds while the plants are young (older plants can take care of themselves). It also helps to keep the soil cool and conserve moisture.

Problems

Bolting: Chard is a biennial, but sometimes it will bolt in its first year. This is most often the result of vernalization (see Broccoli), but may also be caused by drought, crowding, poor soil or other stress. If a plant bolts there’s not much you can do but pull it up.

Pests: Chard is little bothered by pests and disease generally. My biggest problem has been leaf miners. You can crush them in the leaf and scrape off the small white egg clusters but row covers are the best solution. Slugs and snails will eat chard if there is nothing more to their liking. In some areas nematodes can be a problem.

Disease: Cercospora leaf spot is the most common disease.

Seed saving: The process is the same as for the related beet. Chard and beet will cross-pollinate so you can only save one type at a time. The seed is produced abundantly, especially if you are saving it from 5 plants to ensure some genetic diversity.

Don’t count on all of you plants producing seed. Chard plants are dioecious, which means either male or female and of course only female plants will produce seed.

Harvesting

When: You can start pinching off the individual leaves as soon as they get big enough to use. I usually  harvest the individual outer leaves, just as they are reaching full size (which may be 8 – 12˝).

How: Chard is a great “cut and come again” crop. Keep harvesting the outer leaves as they get big enough and more will be produced. Harvest freely, but take care not to take too many from a single plant at one time. Give them a chance to recover.

You may be able to rejuvenate a tired old plant, by cutting it down to within 3 – 4˝ of the ground. It should then sprout tender new growth.

Storage: Use the leaves immediately after harvest, as they are thin and don’t keep for very long (only a few days in the fridge in a plastic bag). For longer term storage it can be frozen like spinach. This is useful for those times when it is producing far more than you can use immediately.

Unusual growing ideas

Spring greens: If you protect the roots over the winter, they will start growing again as the weather warms up in spring. This new growth can be harvested several times before the plants bolt. Once the plant starts to bolt the leaves aren’t very good.

Ornamental: The spectacularly colored chard varieties (red, white, orange, yellow) are highly photogenic and are a favorite of upscale magazine garden photos. They can be used as foliage plants for ornamental garden beds.

Varieties

Ruby Chard:

Rhubarb Chard: These two varieties have beautiful red stems.

Bright Lights:

Rainbow Chard: These two varieties produce a combination of red, yellow, green and white stems and are beautiful enough for any ornamental garden.

Perpetual Spinach: This is an old variety with thin tender stems, that more closely resembles spinach than other chards (it is also known as spinach beet). It isn’t as attractive as some of the other varieties, but is very productive and bolt resistant. It is my favorite variety (so far).

Green Lucullus: One of commonest green varieties.

Fordhook Giant: A very productive old heirloom.

Kitchen use

The leaves can be used in any recipe calling for spinach. The best way to cook them is to boil for 3 – 5 minutes, as this leaches out a lot of the oxalic acid. If the stems are tough just fold the leaf in half lengthwise and slice it off with one cut of the knife.

Supposedly the thick stems are sometimes prepared as a separate vegetable, though I imagine they would be pretty bland (those of the colored varieties may also be quite tough).

Sag Aloo
 
This Indian curry is normally made with spinach, but this works just as 0
well (as does any other mild flavored green leaf).
20 oz chard leaves
1 onion chopped
5 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup water
½ tsp black pepper
2 tbsp black mustard seed
2 cardamom seeds
2 cloves garlic chopped
20 oz potatoes in small cubes
1 small hot pepper, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt  

Toast the cardamom and mustard seeds in the hot oil (don’t let it
overheat) until they start to pop. Add the onions and garlic and fry for 2 minutes, then add the rest of the spices and cook for another 2 minutes.
Then add the potatoes, hot pepper, chard, salt and water. Cook a further
30 minutes until potatoes are cooked. You could vary this recipe by using different combinations of vegetables.