Gardeners' Dirt: Swiss chard - as striking as a colorful holiday package
By Kathy Klein - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Dec. 15, 2011 at 6:15 a.m.
A wonderful lady who was born in Germany said, "Swiss chard is my favorite vegetable. I love to use it every time a recipe calls for spinach." That declaration makes it simple to think of ways to use Swiss chard in the kitchen. What could be easier? In George Washington's garden at Mount Vernon, Swiss chard was a staple, and before that, Aristotle referenced the vegetable in ancient Greece. A plant with an appearance so striking may give the gardener pause to determine if the flower garden or the vegetable garden is the best location to plant Swiss chard.
There are several names for Swiss chard, such as: "Perpetual Spinach," "Leaf Beet," "Spinach Beet," "Mangold," "Silver Beet," "Chilean Beet," "Seakale Beet," "Strawberry Spinach," "White Beet," "Roman Kale" and "Sicilian Beet." The sheer number of names highlight the popularity in the Mediterranean area.
Swiss chard, Latin name Beta vulgaris, belongs to the same family as beets and spinach. All three are members of the goosefoot family of plants. Sicily is the location of Swiss chard's origin. Named by a Swiss botanist, the word "chard" is derived from "Cardus" the Latin word for thistle.
More heat-tolerant than spinach, Swiss chard can stand dryer conditions than spinach so when the garden heats up, it is less likely to bolt. Keeping Swiss chard moist will extend the growing season, as will cutting off any flower that should appear to redirect plant energy away from seed formation.
Like beets, the seeds of Swiss chard contain multiple plants. Unlike beets, however, the root of Swiss chard is small and inedible.
Swiss chard is a showy addition to the garden. Among the varieties of Swiss chard, the gardener finds white, red, yellow and "rainbow" stems supporting rich green leaves. (See adjoining information with some varieties listed.) "Rainbow Swiss Chard" is actually a mixture of seeds of white, red and yellow, and not a distinct variety. "Neon Lights" is another combination of stem colors included in one seed package.
Swiss chard can tolerate heat, but likes the cool weather and can be sown as soon as frosts are past. Direct seeding 1/2 of an inch deep and 1 inch apart in rich soil well drained with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8 gives the best result. The vegetable is not usually one that is transplanted, and acidic soil will tend to stunt plant growth. Swiss chard can even be grown in a container that is at least 12-inches deep and 12-inches across.
Sprouting in 60-degree soil temperatures will require about one week. A little afternoon shade in our climate will be helpful. Keeping soil around the plants moist and mulched will not only prevent weed growth, but will also prevent fibrous stems and bitter taste in midsummer because of the cooler and moister soil that will result. One inch of water each week will keep Swiss chard growing well.
The plant grows to maturity in 35 to 60 days, but when it doesn't bolt (produce a seed head), it has been known to produce excellent quality greens in our area for a year or more . even through summer.
Plants can grow to 24-inches tall and 18-inches wide. One approach to having this marvelous vegetable available throughout the growing season is to plant the seeds 1-inch apart, and continue to successively thin and thus harvest every other plant. Harvest can begin in earnest when leaves are 6-inches long.
Because of the striking color of the stalks, some gardeners allow for a dense bed for the beautiful effect.
When the plants are fully mature, select the entire plant for harvest or alternatively pick only the outer leaves. By harvesting primarily the outer leaves, the gardener can enjoy a fresh supply of tender new leaves as growth continues.
Cooking and consumption
While cooks in the United States value the chard leaves and are advised to discard the stems, Europeans use the stem and can discard the leaves. When using Swiss chard, if the young tender leaves and "thinnings" are picked, they can be used raw in salads.
Once the leaves have matured, the leaves and stalks require different cooking times. Boiling the leaves for 3 minutes is the recommended approach. If the stalks are eaten, cooking time for them is a minute longer, or until desired tenderness is achieved.
For many, only the stems of white varieties, such as "Fordhook Giant," are considered tender enough to eat.
For the calorie-conscious, it's good to know that 1 cup of Swiss chard packs a lot of nutrition and only 35 calories.
Color in the garden
Swiss chard adds striking color to the landscape, as well as in design. Its bright green leaf with various stem and midrib colors can brighten a tablescape with each harvested cutting.
With flashy stems and luxurious leaves, Swiss chard is truly an edible landscape plant that is as pretty as a holiday package.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.