What a pleasure growing Swiss Chard is!
A veritable nutritional powerhouse full of Vitamins, Minerals and Fibre but with negligible calories and lots of lovely ways to serve it raw or cooked.
At the same time, my personal favourites, the colourful varietals, such as ‘Neon Lights’, live up to their alternative name of ‘Rainbow Chard’ with super-bright veins and stems in shades from purple through red and orange to a vibrant yellow, adding a splash of colour from the moment they sprout.
An easy to grow and glorious addition to any vegetable garden.
Beta vulgaris var. cicla
Optimum pH 6.0-7.0
Swiss chard is also known and catalogued as spinach beet, leaf beet, silver beet and seakale beet, though I think the last two names are used only to describe the Fordhook Giant type of plant, which has dark green leaves and wide, white, flat petioles or mid-ribs, which are often cooked separately.
It has also been described as ‘perpetual’ spinach, though the picking season rarely extends over more than about 4 months, particularly if nematodes are a problem.
Swiss chard, garden beets, sugar beets and mangelwurzels all belong to the same species, as is evident from their seeds, and they will ‘cross’ readily if seed crops are grown on adjacent plots, which explains why red-tinged plants sometimes show up in sowings.
Swiss chard is loosely called ‘spinach’ by most people in many countries, the cultivars of true spinach being somewhat more difficult subjects as well as much lower yielding.
The plants are grown mainly for their leaves, but the leafstalks are used extensively for certain dishes.
An upright cultivar with dark green leaves, sometimes heavily crumpled, while the leaf stalks are broad, flat and white.
As the picking season progresses the stalks often appear to be a little out of proportion to the leaf area. Lucullus: This is a very popular cultivar.
The leaves are long, light green in colour, and sometimes distinctly arched in fertile soil. The stalks are relatively thin and similar to rhubarb in section.
Swiss Chard Soil Requirements and Preparation
Swiss chard can be successfully grown on a wide range of soils, but the plants are heavy feeders over a long period and although regular side-dressings will stimulate growth, thorough soil preparation, before sowing or planting, is the foundation of success.
Any manure or compost that can be spared should be incorporated thoroughly, but it must be in a fairly advanced state of decomposition otherwise it will continue to break down in the soil and this will have a deleterious effect on crop growth.
A dressing of 60-90 g of 2:3:2 or 3:2:1 incorporated shallowly prior to sowing will encourage rapid growth.
Swiss chard will not tolerate soil acidity of any consequence and a dressing of dolomitic limestone should be applied on suspect soils.
Growing Swiss Chard From Seed
Propagation is by seed, sown where the plants are to mature, though the seedlings transplant quite easily if necessary.
As with beetroot and other close relatives, the rough cork-like seeds are actually fruit clusters containing several true seeds and careful sowing is necessary if excessive thinning out is to be avoided.
How To Sow Swiss Chard Seeds
If the crop is sown in situ, which is the easiest method when only a few rows are required, the prepared soil should be raked to a fine tilth, and shallow drills, 350-450 mm apart, taken out.
As the large seeds are easily handled, an even stand is assured if they are sown singly 60-75 mm apart, covered with 15-20 mm of fine soil, firmed and watered with a fine spray.
They can be sown during most months of the year, with fall to spring being the most favourable period.
During hot weather the sowing can be covered with a light grass mulch.
If seedbed sowing is practised, the seeds can be sown a little thicker, say 25-40 mm apart in the drills, and the seedlings set out at about 4 weeks into rows, allowing 250 mm between plants.
Swiss chard leaves are removed by pulling and twisting.
Swiss Chard Growing Tips
The seeds germinate quickly in favourable conditions, 5-8 days being the usual time taken. If a good stand of plants is obtained in directly-sown rows, it will be necessary to thin the plants to give them ample room for development.
This can be carried out at any stage from about 2 weeks, but if it is carried out a week or two later the thinned plants, if lifted carefully, can be used to fill up any gaps or plant out additional rows. Or they can be popped into the pot.
The plants should finally stand 200-250 mm apart in the row to mature.
From the time picking commences, monthly side-dressings of 3:2:1 or straight nitrogen will maintain the plants in vigorous growth, as will liquid manure applications at intervals of 2-3 weeks.
Mulching with short material will prove beneficial, especially if compost or manure can be spared for the purpose.
How To Harvest Swiss Chard
The first leaves can usually be picked about 8 weeks after sowing, and once they are of good size they should not be left on the plant too long otherwise they will lose their fresh colour and become tough.
The leaves are best harvested by moving along the rows and systematically removing 2 or 3 of the largest leaves from each plant. They are removed, as is rhubarb, by pulling with a twisting action.
Cutting cannot be recommended, for inevitably the knife damages other leaf stalks and causes losses.
Some gardeners cut or twist off the whole tuft of leaves from each plant at one time, but after such treatment I find that the plants take a long time to recover and seldom regain their former vigour and leaf size.
When vigorous upright growth ceases and the leaves spread out to form a loose rosette it is an indication that the picking season is coming to an end.
At this stage the plants are best lifted with a fork, the leaves cut off and the root systems, if ‘clean’, added to the compost heap. It is far better to sow a few rows every few weeks to achieve succession, than to try to prolong the life of a single planting.
Pests Affecting Swiss Chard
Caterpillars occasionally cause trouble, although Swiss chard does not have quite the same attraction for them as the Brassicas have.
Malathion, Thiodan, or Lindane are effective materials.
Swiss Chard Diseases
Leaf spot (Cercospora beticola) can be quite a problem at certain seasons.
Warm weather and high humidity are conducive to its establishment and spread. The spots are brown initially, later turning grey, 3-4 mm in diameter and have reddish-purple borders.
In several cases the spots coalesce so that the major portion of the leaf is affected.
Dithane M45 and copper oxychloride are effective if used early and if the weather dries out for a week or more.
A second spray 5-10 days later may be necessary.