- Harvesting Chard: How And When To Harvest Swiss Chard Plants
- Swiss Chard Harvest
- When is Chard Ready to Pick
- How to Pick Swiss Chard
- Harvesting Swiss Chard in 3 Steps
- Grow and Save Swiss Chard Seeds
- How to Grow Swiss Chard
- How to Save Swiss Chard Seeds
- One way to fight food waste: Revive wilted produce
- Greens: Storage Tips
- Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, (Cicla and Flavescens Groups)
- Cultivation and History
- How to Grow
- Companion Plants
- Growing Tips:
- Cultivars to Select
- Managing Pests and Disease
- Seed Saving
- Quick Reference Growing Chart
- Recipes and Cooking Ideas
- Garden to Table
Harvesting Chard: How And When To Harvest Swiss Chard Plants
Chard can be eaten when young in salads or later in stir-fry. The stalk and ribs are also edible and resembles celery. Chard is an excellent source of vitamins A and C and adds great beauty to the garden. To get the most from your Swiss chard harvest, it is a good idea to become familiar with how and when to harvest Swiss chard from the garden.
Swiss Chard Harvest
Swiss chard, a member of the beet family, is known by a host of other names including silverbeet, perpetual spinach, spinach beet, sekale beet, crab beet and mangold. Swiss chard is an attractive, leafy vegetable with a red stalk that produces an abundance of fresh greens all summer long, though many other varieties offer other colors as well.
Chard reaches a mature height of 1 to 2 feet and is relatively easy to sow from seed or transplants. You can grow chard anywhere that lettuce and spinach will grow. It can be planted early in the season, as the seedlings are tolerant to frost. Swiss chard likes organic-rich, well drained soil and plenty of sun. Once chard reaches its maturity, you’ll need to begin harvesting chard. So how and when is chard ready to pick?
When is Chard Ready to Pick
Chard can be harvested while the leaves are young and tender (smaller than 4 inches) or after maturity. Once you have begun your Swiss chard harvest, the plants can be continually harvested up until it frosts.
If you desire a fresh addition to a tossed salad, you can snip Swiss chard leaves when they are very small. Larger pieces of chard can be cut and used in stir-fry dishes. As long as chard is cut it will produce more leaves. Stalks and ribs can also be cooked and eaten like asparagus.
How to Pick Swiss Chard
The most common method for how to pick chard is to cut off the outer leaves 1 ½ to 2 inches above the ground while they are young and tender (about 8 to 12 inches long). Older leaves are often stripped off the plants and discarded to allow the young leaves to continue to grow. Be careful not to damage the terminal bud.
Provided the growing point is not damaged, all leaves can be cut off to within 2 inches of the soil. Harvesting chard is best done with a clean and sharp pair of garden scissors or a knife. Sever leaves at the base of the plant. New leaves will grow quickly.
Swiss chard can be stored for one to two weeks if refrigerated.
Harvesting Swiss Chard in 3 Steps
Swiss chard has an extended growing season that lasts all the way into the winter months in most areas of the country. This hardy plant is a nutritious addition to any garden and very easy to grow. Follow these step by step instructions to learn how to harvest your Swiss chard plants, to encourage the optimal yield and enjoy these leafy greens the entire season.
Step 1 – Identify Mature Swiss Chard
Depending on your use of the chard, you may want to harvest the leaves at different maturity points. Though Swiss chard reaches maturity in 4 to 6 weeks, it can be eaten any time before that as well. If you’re planning on eating it fresh in a salad, you will want to pick the Swiss chard leaves when they’re only about 4 to 6 inches all. If you will be cooking the leaves, you’ll want to wait until they are about 1 foot tall.
Step 2 – Picking Swiss Chard
To harvest the chard, use a sharp knife to cut the stalk at its base. Focus on cutting the outer leaves, as they are the oldest growth on the plant. After cutting the outer leaves, the inner leaves will soon grow in their place. Be careful when cutting the stems. You don’t want to cut the inner leaves’ stems, as they’re quite close to each other.
If you are not going to use the outer leaves because they are browning or riddled with insects, cut them at the base to encourage continued growth of the inner leaves. In the heat of the summer, chard is known to become bitter. If this happens with your chard crop, be sure to keep trimming the outer leaves, and check back with it when the weather cools. The bitterness often subsides by then.
Step 3 – Clean the Leaves
As with any produce from your garden, you will want to thoroughly clean Swiss chard before use. Check the underside of all leaves for bugs, especially if you’re not using any pesticides in your garden. Wash the leaves and cook or serve fresh.
If you continue to harvest your plant and keep it in the active growth stage, it should produce all the way through the spring and summer, and in most cases all the way up until the end of the year. A very cold-hardy plant, Swiss chard can continue growing all the way through November, even in northern US states. If you want to extend the growing season even farther, a cold frame will typically ensure fresh chard through the winter months in colder climates.
If you get frost damage on the outer leaves, cut them away as you’re harvesting and discard them. Normally, the inner leaves will still be protected and ready to eat.
Use these steps to keep your Swiss chard in great shape throughout the year.
Grow and Save Swiss Chard Seeds
How to Grow Swiss Chard
Swiss chard is a green with a unique taste. Swiss chard and beets are the same species, and they require a period of overwintering in order to set seeds. Plants can be lightly harvested in the first year for food, and then set to overwinter and produce seeds the following year.
Time of Planting
Plant seeds outdoors as soon as soil can be worked in the spring.
Direct sow seeds 2 inches apart and later thin to 6-12 inches apart. Sow seeds ½ inch deep.
Time to Germination
When growing for seed, increase spacing to 19 inches between plants in rows 36 inches apart, or to 24 inches on center. Staking plants is recommended.
Common Pests and Diseases
Downy mildew can be a problem for Swiss chard when grown close together as baby greens. Birds also enjoy the leaves, but protecting new seedlings under row covers can deter them.
When and How to Harvest
Swiss chard can be continually harvested throughout the season. Harvest the outer leaves at the base of the stalk, leaving four to five inner leaves to continue growing. Swiss chard can also be harvested in closer plantings as baby greens, cutting the leaves about 3 inches above the soil and returning every week or so. Allow plants to re-grow to 5-6 inches before harvesting again.
Swiss chard can be steamed or used in soups, or as an addition to salads and sandwiches.
Keep leaves in plastic bags in the crisper in the fridge for a few days.
How to Save Swiss Chard Seeds
This crop is a biennial, meaning that it will not set seed until the second year of growth. At seed maturity, plants of this species take up a fair amount of garden real estate. A benefit to growing Swiss chard for seed is that you can lightly harvest the plants in their first season for food, and then let them overwinter and harvest the seeds the next year.
Recommended Isolation Distance
Separate varieties by 800 feet to 1 mile.
Recommended Population Sizes
To ensure viable seeds, save seeds from at least 5 plants. When maintaining a variety over many generations, save seeds from 20-50 plants. If you’re saving seeds for genetic preservation of a rare variety, save seeds from 80 plants or more.
Assessing Seed Maturity
Seeds at the base of the flower stalks ripen first, and seed maturation continues up the stalks. Seeds change from green to a tannish-brown color as they mature.
Once seeds start ripening, there will almost always be a mixture of mature and immature seeds on plants. Harvesting when approximately two-thirds of the seeds are brown is recommended. Depending on the scale of seed collection, individual seedstalks can be cut or entire plants can be pulled from the garden and moved to a place where they can continue drying. Depending on the percentage of ripe seeds at harvest, 7 to 14 days should be a sufficient drying period.
Cleaning and Processing
The seedstalks can be threshed using one of several methods. Small lots and cut branches can be processed by running a gloved hand along the length of the stalk with a container placed underneath to catch dislodged seeds; stalks should be discarded once they are stripped of seeds. Larger lots and whole plants can be placed in large tubs or on tarps and treaded upon. Threshed seedstalks should be discarded, and the seed lot should then be screened and winnowed.
Storage and Viability
When stored under cool, dry conditions, beet seeds can be expected to remain viable for 5 years.
One way to fight food waste: Revive wilted produce
A typical Wednesday night at my house goes something like this: Open refrigerator, take lettuce and other vegetables out of crisper, see that most of them are wilted, return them to refrigerator. Realize meat isn’t defrosted, whip out iPhone, order Thai food delivery.
That typical Wednesday night is followed by my Saturday morning routine: Go to the farmers market, buy great stuff, come home, open refrigerator, slide out crisper drawer, throw (almost) everything away from week or two before, replace with new stuff. Lather, rinse, repeat.
By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, I’ve thrown away just over $1,200 in produce so far this year. I’m not proud of that.
In fact, I’m pretty embarrassed. When I buy meat, I use every bit of it, including the bones for stock. Why am I so careless with produce?
I’ve made a real effort to break this bad habit. I try to eat vegetables with every meal. Still, Swiss chard and romaine lettuce leaves droop and sag after a few days at home, and there are only so many stir-fries and soups one can make when carrots, green beans and asparagus get bendy. Sometimes you just crave something fresh and crunchy without wanting to drive to the grocery store or wait a few days for the next farmers market to open.
I wish I had the time and lifestyle to shop for food every day. But even if I did, a one-person household takes longer than a family of four to go through a head of lettuce or a bunch of carrots. Even when I’m trying, vegetables often wilt before I can manage to get to them.
With a firm resolve to save money and be respectful of the farmers who grow the produce I eat, I’ve been on a mission to extend the “fridge life” of my vegetable staples. So I turned to the experts to learn more about how to revive what I’ve got and better store what I buy.
“Water is everything.”
That’s what Bernard Boyle of Garner’s Produce tells me at the 14th and U Farmers Market on a sunny Saturday morning. He’s right. We all learned in high school biology that the human body is about 60 percent water. What I’ve discovered in my let’s-try-not-to-be-so-wasteful vegetable research is that plant foods have us beat: Most fresh vegetables in the typical American diet are more than 90 percent water by weight, according to Nathan Myhrvold and the team that wrote the epic food science and technology tome “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” (The Cooking Lab, 2011).
For example, they found that a carrot is roughly 88 percent water, nearly the same proportion found in milk. A fresh cucumber contains a higher proportion of water than some mineral-rich spring waters. Swiss chard is 94 percent water.
In “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes” (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010), food science expert Harold McGee writes that fresh vegetables and herbs gradually deteriorate as they use up their limited water reserves after harvesting. That makes sense. But can you give them a little boost before they cross over to the rotten side, and if so, how?
Consumer advice about reviving vegetables runs the gamut: room-temperature water vs. ice water; submerging the whole vegetable or soaking just the ends; adding salt, sugar or vinegar to the water. Chefs, food companies, scientists and food bloggers offer a variety of methods juggling time, temperature and those additives, with the one commonality being water.
Kathleen M. Brown, professor of plant stress biology at Penn State University, teaches a post-harvest physiology class and has researched this topic. Her advice: All you need is water.
“Additives actually reduce the difference in osmotic potential between the vegetable and water and reduce the rehydration rate,” she says. “Besides, you don’t need those flavors.”
Air and water temperature matter during the revival process, Brown advises. “When the air temperature is lower, the vapor pressure deficit — the driver of moisture loss — is smaller.” She tells me I should soak vegetables in cold water from the tap to revive them, and do so in the refrigerator instead of in my warm kitchen.
For vegetables that have a heavy cuticle, or waxy exterior layer that might not admit water as quickly — Swiss chard and celery are examples — Brown suggests trimming the stems and putting them in a glass or vase of water, as you would fresh-cut flowers.
How do you know when they’re refreshed? “When the vegetables are well hydrated, there is a higher pressure in the cells, and they break and release moisture more easily when you chew, so they seem crisp,” says Brown.
Can vegetables be over-hydrated? Sort of. Gardener and chef Deborah Madison, whose latest book is “Vegetable Literacy” (Ten Speed Press), cautions that when you wash or revive leafy greens such as lettuce, kale or chard, you need to dry them thoroughly if you’re not going to use them right away: Water remaining on the outside invites bacteria. In fact, she breaks apart her lettuce and other leafy greens, rinses and dries them, then stores them in a plastic bag with a clean, dry dish towel or paper towels to absorb any remaining moisture on the leaves.
But then what? After we get all that water back in vegetables, the refrigerators we put them into take it out all over again.
“In basic refrigeration, the cooling system is in the freezer, and the refrigerator gets its cold air from the freezer,” says Michael Mattingly, senior refrigeration product manager at GE. “The colder you make your freezer air, the more humidity is stripped out.”
Mattingly explains that humidity in refrigerators comes from two sources: outside air flowing in when you open the refrigerator door and humidity given off from fruits and vegetables inside. New, high-end refrigerators have dual-evaporation systems: separate cooling systems for the freezer and the refrigerator, allowing for better humidity control. And most residential refrigerators also have some level of adjustable humidity control in the crisper drawers that the owner’s manual or product Web site should give guidance on how best to use. Just know that although adjusting the drawers’ humidity can help with storage, it won’t stop the vegetables’ natural process of losing moisture.
The challenge for many consumers, myself included, is that crisper drawers are at the bottom of the refrigerator. Though Mattingly explains the engineering and aesthetic design rationale behind that placement, and it makes perfect sense, out of sight is out of mind.
Madison keeps flours, grains, nuts and dried fruit in her refrigerator crisper drawers — not vegetables.
“I store vegetables in plastic bags on the shelves in my fridge, and it works just fine,” she says. Keeping them in plastic bags provided by vendors gives vegetables a better chance at lasting longer.
It’s common sense that the foods kept at eye level are the ones you will use most in your cooking, says Madison. If you’ve lost sight of vegetables and they have wilted, it’s worth trying to rehydrate them. But if they’re past the point of no return — if your produce has changed color, is covered in dark spots or has discolored, liquefied, become slimy or generated obvious bacterial or mold growth — discard them.
Better yet, “compost them!” says Madison. “Returning them to the earth should make you feel less guilty.”
Blymire is a freelance writer and author who lives in Takoma Park. She’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
More from Food:
How to bring 12 kinds of vegetables back to life
Greens: Storage Tips
Storing food in small amounts is easy, but in larger quantities it can be tricky in our increasingly energy efficient homes. Most greens store best in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Here are some more tips for keeping your greens fresh.
Storage Conditions A dark place that is 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity is perfect. The refrigerator is the perfect environment for greens. Keep them in a plastic bag to retain moisture.
How to Pack Them Store well for a few weeks in the refrigerator in plastic bags.
While in Storage Remove any yellowing or declining leaves as they appear. Giving the bottom end of the stems a fresh cut every few days helps keep your greens crisp. If they become wilted, set them in a bowl of cold water for a few hours and they’ll crisp right up. Cabbage keeps very well, just peel off the bad leaves and put it back in the fridge.
How Long They Last If kept moist, at an even cool temperature, most greens will last a week or more. Greens are good unless they are very yellowed, stinky, or at all slimy. Tender greens like lettuce, spring mix, spinach, and arugula can last up to a week. Hardier greens like radish greens, beet greens, and swiss chard will last a bit longer. Really hardy greens like parsley, kale, turnip greens, and collard greens will last 1-2 weeks. Cabbage can last for months.
Other Tips Just like cut flowers, greens can be kept in a tall glass on the counter. And why not? They’re gorgeous! Add just enough fresh, cold water to have the freshly cut stem-ends submerged. Change water and spritz greens daily.
A Note on Storing Food Storing food in small amounts is easy, but in larger quantities it can be tricky in our increasingly energy efficient homes. Small amounts of things that like it moist like greens, roots, and tubers can be stored in the refrigerator, and things that like it drier like onions, garlic, and winter squash can be stored on the counter top. When trying to determine the right place in your home to store a box or boxes of produce, a good place to start is by monitoring temperatures in your home. Get a bunch of thermometers and place them in closets, hallways, and the places that are generally dark and have mostly even temperatures. Chart those temperatures through a winter before you get too serious about storing food.
Learn about storing potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips and similar roots, onions and garlic, and winter squash.
Storage Tips Cooking Tips arugula cabbage collard greens greens herbs kale lettuce mesclun mustard greens parsley spinach spring mix storage swiss chard turnip greens
Download: Swiss Chard Growing Guide
- How chard acquired the adjective Swiss in its name remains a mystery, since it has nothing to do with Switzerland! It is also referred to simply as chard. The name chard is reputed to have come from either the French word for cardoon, a different vegetable that resembles an artichoke plant, or from the Latin word cardus, for thistle.
- To add to the confusion, chard has acquired a variety of other common names. In English, it’s been known variously as silverbeet, strawberry spinach, Roman kale, and leaf beet, among others.
- Chard is a biennial plant, meaning it has a two year life cycle, but it is cultivated as an annual in the vegetable garden and harvested in its first season of growth. Once it begins to flower and set seed in its second year, its leaves turn bitter and unpalatable.
- Both the leaves and stalks of chard are edible. Young leaves may be eaten raw in salads, while older leaves and stalks are generally served cooked.
- Chard is an excellent source of Vitamins K, A and C.
This beet relative and Mediterranean native has been cultivated for centuries. Chard provides plenty of nutrition and good taste, along with more heat tolerance than many kinds of greens, so it’s a popular choice for gardeners across the county. Some varieties of chard have colorful stems that contrast with its broad green leaves, making it a great choice for edible landscaping, where edible plants are combined with ornamental ones to add beauty and interest to the landscape instead of relegating them to a strictly utilitarian vegetable bed.
Cultivars of chard vary mainly by the color of the stems. Some varieties have white stems and leaf veins; some have bright red or yellow; and some come with stems in a mixture of hues, including gold, pink, red, orange, purple and white. Most have savoyed or crinkled leaves.
Full sun and fertile, well-drained soil will give the best results. In warm climates, light shade during the hottest part of the day is helpful in extending the spring harvest season.
WHEN TO PLANT
Begin sowing seeds as early as 2 weeks before the average last frost date in spring. Chard seeds are usually sown directly in the garden, but for the earliest harvest plants can be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost date, hardened off and set out 2 weeks before the last frost date. Except in the warmest areas, make succession plantings every few weeks up until about 2 months before your average fall frost date. In the warmest parts of the country, make early spring and late summer to fall sowings. Hardy chard plants will weather temperatures down to about 20°F.
Sow seeds about ½ inch deep and 4 inches apart. As with beets, chard “seeds” are actually dried fruit capsules containing multiple seeds. Seedlings sprout in clusters; so no matter how carefully you space out the seeds at planting time, you’ll still need to do some thinning. After seedlings produce their first set of true leaves (what appear to be the second set of leaves), use a pair of small, sharp scissors to snip out all but one in each cluster. Then when plants are 4-6 inches high, thin them again to stand 8-12 inches apart. (Use the tender leaves from this second thinning in a spring salad.)
Chard is also a good crop to grow in containers. A 5-gallon pot is a good size for three chard plants. Or combine chard with flowers and herbs in a half-barrel planter for a decorative and edible display.
For vigorous growth, feed chard plants with a high nitrogen fertilizer every 4-6 weeks. Make sure plants have a consistent supply of moisture throughout the growing season, especially when the weather turns warm.
Flea Beetles. These small, black beetles, which jump like fleas when disturbed, chew numerous small holes in leaves. Cover beds with row cover fabric as soon as seeds are planted to keep beetles away.
Leaf Miners. Adult flies lay eggs in leaves that hatch out into larvae that feed within the leaf tissue, creating visible winding tunnels. The best way to avoid damage is to cover beds with row cover fabric as soon as they are seeded to prevent egg-laying.
Leaf Spot. Cercospora leaf spot is a fungal disease that can infect chard, as well as beets and spinach, causing brown or gray spots with reddish margins. To help reduce problems with this disease, rotate the location of susceptible crops in the garden on a 2-year cycle; clean up plant debris well at the end of the season to get rid of infected residues; make sure to thin plants to ensure good air circulation; and keep leaves dry by using drip irrigation or watering plants overhead in early morning so leaves dry quickly.
You can begin harvesting plants when their leaves are about 6 inches long, usually about 6 weeks after planting. For an extended harvest, break or cut off the outer leaves at their base, leaving the plant’s inner leaves to continue growing. You can also let plants grow to their mature size (1-2 feet tall) and harvest the entire plant.
Find out how to make Swiss Chard, Kale and Feta Salad and other tasty chard recipes from Vermont Harvest of the Month.
Quick Guide to Growing Swiss Chard
- Plant Swiss chard in the spring, 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. These colorful, nutritious plants grow well in raised garden beds, containers, and in-ground gardens.
- Space Swiss chard 12 to 18 inches apart in nutrient-rich, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8.
- Get your growing season off to a great start by mixing in several inches of aged compost or other rich organic matter into your native soil.
- Leafy vegetables need an abundant water supply to grow, so be sure to give them 1 to 1.5 inches of water weekly.
- Make the most of your food-growing efforts by feeding plants with a continuous-release plant food.
- Harvest Swiss chard any time the leaves are large enough to eat. Young leaves will be more tender and flavorful.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Set out plants 2 to 4 weeks before the date of the last frost in spring. A spring planting will go on producing through spring, summer, and fall. For fall gardens, set out plants just about anytime in late summer when they begin appearing at your favorite garden center. Plants tolerate heat well as long as you keep them properly watered.
Growing Swiss chard works best in rich, moist soil with a soil pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Plant about 12 to 18 inches apart in fertile soil, watering directly after planting. Work nitrogen-rich amendments such as blood meal, cottonseed meal, feather meal, or composted manure into the ground before planting, or improve your existing soil by mixing in aged compost-enriched Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose In-Ground Soil with the top few inches of native soil. You can also plant Swiss chard in pots. Fill them with a premium quality potting mix like Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose Container Mix, which also contains nutrient-rich compost. For best results, you’ll also want to fertilize your plants regularly with a continuous-release plant food, such as Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose Plant Nutrition Granules, according to label directions.
Like all vegetables, Swiss chard does best with a nice, even supply of water. Water regularly, applying 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week if it doesn’t rain. You can measure the amount of water with a rain gauge in the garden. Apply organic mulch such as compost, finely ground leaves, wheat straw, or finely ground bark to keep the soil cool and moist and to keep down weeds. Mulching will also help keep the plant leaves clean, reducing the risk of disease.
There’s also the option of growing Swiss chard indoors. One of the easiest ways to do that is with a hydroponic system like the Miracle-Gro® Twelve™ Indoor Growing 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—with a grow light right above them to act as “sunlight.”
Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, (Cicla and Flavescens Groups)
Swiss chard, B. vulgaris, is a type of beet. But instead of featuring a well-developed and flavorful root, its claim to fame is glossy puckered leaves veined with bright white, orange, magenta, red, or yellow, with firm stalks to match.
Think spinach meets celery under neon lights, and you have a pretty good description of this colorful and nutritious vegetable. Read on for all you need to know to grow it in your garden!
Cultivation and History
Swiss chard is a biennial that grows as an annual in all temperate zones. It’s hardy to approximately 15°F, but while it does best in cool temperatures, it can tolerate heat with adequate watering.
Successful cultivation requires a location that gets full sun to part shade, with soil that is organically rich and well-draining. To determine your soil’s characteristics, conduct a soil test.
The ideal pH range is between 6.0 and 8.0, slightly more acidic than for beets.
Also, they note that chard is not “day-length sensitive,” a botanical phenomenon called “photoperiodism.” This is why it’s less prone to bolting, or prematurely setting seed, than other leafy greens like spinach and lettuce.
And while annual chard in colder climates sets no seed, plants in warmer regions set seed in the second year. When they do, the leaves are no longer tasty.
In addition to growing it for consumption, B. vulgaris is often cultivated as an ornamental. With its glossy leaves and vivid, multi-colored stems, it makes an eye-catching focal point in beds, borders, and containers, especially in the autumn garden, as the last blossoms of summer fade.
And whether you grow it to eat or just to look at, this cut-and-come-again vegetable should have its leaves snipped frequently to encourage further leaf formation throughout the growing season.
Leafy B. vulgaris is also known as leafy beet, mangold, perpetual spinach, seakale beet, and silver beet.
“Chard” is from the French “carde,” from the Vulgar Latin “carda,” and the Latin “carduus.” It means “cardoon,” which is the artichoke thistle, Cynara cardunculus.
Chard is a “cultivated descendant” of the sea beet, B. vulgaris subsp. maritima, and the first varieties have been traced to Sicily. The word “Swiss” was added by the 19th century to help seed catalog shoppers differentiate chard from French spinach.
B. vulgaris grows from irregularly-shaped seed clusters that contain several seeds in each.
You may find it listed for sale as “decorticated” or “pelletized,” meaning the rough edges have been made smooth, so it passes more easily through seeding tools.
How to Grow
When selecting varieties to plant, consult seed packets for information on mature dimensions, to plan your beds or containers appropriately.
In my region of the Northeast, folks sow chard just before the last frost, and sometimes several more times until mid-summer. If you’re fortunate to live where the ground doesn’t freeze hard, you may also plant again in the fall. B. vulgaris germinates in 50°F soil, and may struggle with temperatures that exceed 80°F.
Since its seeds come several to a pod, so you’ll have little clusters of seedlings that need to be thinned out before transplanting. Keep the sturdiest and rinse and enjoy the rest as nutritious microgreens.
Start seeds indoors three to four weeks before the last frost date, or direct sowing two weeks before this date. Seedlings may be placed outside just after the last frost date has passed.
For those in warmer regions, she says to direct sow seeds about 10 weeks before the first frost date. Place seedlings outside at four weeks old.
Sow seed in organically-rich soil supplemented by compost and/or fertilizer as needed. A soil test is your best indicator of what’s required. Leafy vegetables benefit from nitrogen supplementation, so consider a well-balanced, slow-release fertilizer if you decide to forgo the test.
At the recommended time, harden-off your seedlings. Acclimate them to the outdoors for a couple of hours each day for several days prior to transplanting them into the garden or containers.
If you choose to pot them, provide containers with good drainage holes and a depth of at least 12 inches. Choose a smaller-stature variety, and trim leaves as soon as they reach six inches, to encourage more leaf than root growth.
For garden plants, you may cut leaves at heights from six inches to two feet, depending upon plant size. The smaller the leaf and stalk, the more tender the texture. In addition, leaving mature leaves unharvested may result in more root growth and fewer new leaves.
Prepare your garden soil to a depth of about 12 inches, working in any recommended amendments, and fertilizing if you so choose.
Place one seedling every 12 inches, leaving about 18 inches between rows. Water and maintain even moisture, never allowing the soil to completely dry out during the plants’ acclimation to their new location.
Some folks like to grow “baby greens,” meaning they like to harvest them at a height of at least six inches tall. If this is your plan, consider planting much closer together, about six inches, to get more leaves little leaves per square foot.
Once established, plants need an inch or so of water throughout the growing season. Supplement in the absence of rain, or plants will slow leaf production until moisture is restored.
Good “companions” are those with similar sun, soil, and water needs that don’t attract pests and diseases that would have an adverse effect on your vegetable. Good choices for sharing space with B. vulgaris are members of the brassicas and cole crops, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and cabbage.
Other excellent companions include chamomile, coreopsis, lettuce, mint, nasturtium, and sweet alyssum.
Companion plants like sweet alyssum and chamomile attract pollinators, some of whom feed on the pests that may be attracted to Swiss chard. In addition, having refreshing birdbaths and welcoming birdhouses attract feathered friends that also feed on insect pests.
Avoid planting corn; cucurbits like cucumber, melon, and pumpkin; and potatoes nearby for the reasons stated above.
- Avoid companions that compete for water and attract pests and diseases to which chard may become vulnerable.
- Harvest often to encourage new leaf formation.
- Maintain adequate moisture.
- Plant multiple times for successive crops.
- Space according to planned use as “baby greens” or full-size leaves.
Cultivars to Select
When shopping for seed, you’ll come across an array of cultivars. There are glossy, puckered leaves in shades of green and deep red, with ribs and veins in a rainbow of hues that includes magenta, orange, purple, red, white, and yellow.
By the way, there’s no cultivar called “Rainbow Chard.” Merchants simply mix different cultivars to achieve a multi-colored bunch for sale.
Some exceptional varieties to look for are:
Expect multi-colored solid and striped stems, as well as both deep red and green leaves with this variety.
It matures to a height of up to 20 inches tall.
You can find this variety at True Leaf Market.
Light green leaves and white stems characterize this type.
The standard cultivar has a smaller stature, with stalks from 8 to 10 inches tall, making it a perfect container gardening choice.
Find it at Eden Brothers.
A larger version of ‘Fordhook,’ this cultivar tops out at 24 inches.
You can find it at Burpee.
If you’re looking for a variety prized not only for its flavor, but its exceptional heat and cold tolerance, white-ribbed, light green-leaved ‘Lucullus’ may be the one.
It reaches a height of up to 24 inches, and often winters over, for an early spring crop.
You can find it at True Leaf Market.
Billed as “bolt-resistant,” this beauty has bright orange stems and dark green leaves.
Stalks are 8 to 10 inches tall, making it suitable for a small container garden.
Find it at Eden Brothers.
With its abundant bright red stems and dark green leaves, ‘Ruby’ makes a pretty ornamental as well as an edible in the summer through fall landscape.
Often called “Rhubarb Chard,” this kind may kind may reach a height of 24 inches.
Find it on True Leaf Market.
Managing Pests and Disease
Chard is not prone to insects or disease. The best way to avoid both is to follow the recommended planting suggestions. With nutrient-rich soil, good drainage, adequate aeration between vegetables, and a minimum of weeds, you’re well on your way to success.
It’s also wise to rotate crops and not co-plant with spinach or beets, to inhibit insects specific to this botanical group, such as the beet leafhopper, that winter over in the soil and live their lives on these plants, as well as chard.
Even with the best intentions, during the growing season, you may have to deal with hungry critters, bugs, and infection, so here’s what to watch for and how to handle each.
Animals such as deer, ground hogs, and rabbits may come a-nibbling, so consider planting in raised beds, and beneath floating row covers, to keep them at bay. In addition, chicken-wire or deer fencing may help.
If plants become targets due to poor soil, drainage, spacing, or weed control, you may encounter the following:
- Beet Leafhopper
- Blister Beetle
- Flea Beetle
- Tarnished plant bug
Insects are a two-fold menace. First, they carry diseases that they spread with each voracious bite of plant tissue. And second, they may make your vegetable their home, laying eggs, nourishing ravenous appetites, causing damage or death, and wintering over to do it all again next year.
(This is one reason for crop rotation, another is soil depletion. Consult our article on cover cropping for more information on this subject.)
Floating row covers are your best bet for avoidance. In addition, a soil-level application of food grade diatomaceous earth is an excellent deterrent. And if you see bugs and eggs on your plants, hand pick them, or dislodge them with a steady stream of water from your garden hose.
Weeds like lamb’s quarters and pigweed are in the same botanical family as B. vulgaris. They attract leafminers and their seedlings closely resemble those of chard, so weed well and with caution!
While not prone to disease, conditions like over- or under-watering may make it susceptible, resulting in damaged plant tissue and growth deformity.
It does tolerate humidity, but B. vulgaris that is planted too closely, or in soil that doesn’t drain well, or both, may succumb to:
- Curly top disease, that affects leaves and roots and is spread by the beet leafhopper.
- Fungal conditions, such as downy mildew, powdery mildew, Cercospora leaf spot, and seedling blight (damping off in the seedling stage).
- Root rot, from soil oversaturation, a condition attractive to slugs.
The beet leafhopper loves sunny locations, so planting in partial shade my deter this virus-carrying pest. An organic fungicide may halt the spread of fungus, but roots that succumb to oversaturation don’t usually recover.
Remove any leaves that are damaged by animals, insects, or disease, and discard them.
This vegetable is a cut-and-come-again species that provides multiple harvests during the growing season. You may be able to cut your first tender leaves as early as late spring. Harvesting stalks when they are young and tender, at about six inches tall, is an excellent way to get the maximum number of harvests per year.
The best time to pick vegetables is during the cool morning or evening hours.
When harvesting both young and older leaves, always take the outer leaves first, leaving the younger, inner ones to continue to grow. Make clean cuts across each stem about an inch above the base of the plant.
As fall draws to a close, and light frosts begin, you may dig up your plants, roots and all. If you keep some soil attached, you may store them in a cool, moist location for continued growth and harvests into the winter.
Alternatively, cut individual stems, or shear off the entire plant at the soil level, for one final harvest of the season.
Another way to optimize your crop output is to use floating row covers to retain warmth right into winter.
If you’re growing as an annual, your plants won’t go to seed. However, if your plants winter over and return the following spring, you may have the pleasure of seeing tiny green flowers set seed at the end of the second growing season.
Once you see this, the leaves will start to taste bitter, and it’s time to watch for seed pod formation.
When most of the pods look brown, remove entire stalks of them and lay them in open paper bags in a dry location.
Give them a week or two, and then rub your fingers down each stalk to release the thoroughly dry seed clusters. Separate them from the chaff and store them in jars, or zippered plastic bags, in a cool, dry location. Seeds should remain viable for five years.
Rinse all leaves and stems before storage to rid them of debris and insects, and pat dry.
Harvested leaves stay fresh for about three days in the fridge. If you put it them in a zippered plastic bag with a damp paper towel, maybe a week.
To make the most of a large crop, you may blanch, cool, and freeze leaves for up to a year.
You can freeze leaves raw or dry them to use as you would parsley flakes. You can even pickle the stalks.
Chard is an excellent source of copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K. The most colorful varieties offer anti-inflammatory betalains.
And please note: chard contains oxalic acid, so consume it in moderation if you have been advised to monitor your oxalate intake for optimal kidney health.
You may enjoy the leaves and stems cooked or uncooked, together or separately. Like many greens, chard has a slightly bitter flavor that grows mild and savory during cooking.
When preparing it, consider cutting up the leaves and stalks separately. This way, you may remove cooked leaves and allow the somewhat tougher stems to continue on until tender. Cooking is the best way to use older leaves.
Young leaves are excellent when lightly wilted in sautés. And more mature leaves make a refreshing and colorful alternative to lettuce and celery, when cut up separately in salads.
Quick Reference Growing Chart
|Plant Type:||Annual or biennial vegetable||Growth Rate:||Fastest in cool weather|
|Native To:||Sicily, naturalized in Europe and the Americas||Maintenance:||Low|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||Annual 2-11, biennial 6-11||Soil Type:||Rich, organic|
|Season:||Spring to hard frost||Soil pH:||6.0-8.0|
|Exposure:||Full sun to part shade||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Time to Maturity:||50-60 days||Companion Planting:||Brassicas, celery, chamomile, coreopsis, lettuce, mint, nasturtium, radishes, sweet alyssum|
|Spacing:||12 inches||Avoid Planting With:||Other subspecies of B. vulgaris (beetroot, sugar beet), corn, curcurbits, most herbs, potatoes|
|Planting Depth:||1/2 inch||Family:||Amaranthaceae|
|Water Needs:||1 inch per week||Species:||B. vulgaris|
|Tolerance:||Cold, heat with adequate watering, light frost|
|Pests & Diseases:||Aphids, beet leafhoppers, blister beetles, flea beetles, leafminers, slugs, tarnished plant bugs, curly leaf fungus, root rot|
Recipes and Cooking Ideas
Here are some recipes to show off your homegrown chard:
Carrot, Rainbow Chard and Red Potato Daal with Seared Chicken Breasts
Try this Indian Daal with Seared Chicken Breasts for an aromatic dish fortified with the anti-inflammatory benefits of golden turmeric.
Photo by Shanna Mallon.
Cauliflower and Chard Fritters with Spicy Yogurt Cilantro Sauce
If you’re looking for a quick prep brunch dish that’s a little out of the box, loaded with vegan nutrition, and packs a cayenne zing, serve your guests this tasty fritter that can be either a main entree, an appetizer, or a side.
Photo by Raquel Smith.
Easy enough to make for a quick lunch!
Get the details on Foodal.
French Lentil Soup with Spices and Chard
And what’s a comforting warmer-upper that’s so good you’ll even want it in the summer?
Photo by Shanna Mallon.
Why, cardamom-infused French lentil soup, of course. Take the vegan option and make it with coconut milk for an even richer, sweeter experience.
Read about it now on Foodal.
Sautéed Swiss Chard with Caramelized Onions, Almonds and Raisins
With your abundant harvest, you’ll find this dish is your new go-to-choice for impromptu get-togethers.
Photo by Shanna Mallon.
The pairing of gently wilted greens and tender onions with crisp nuts and chewy raisins is a textural feast for the palate that always satisfies.
Find out what all the fuss is about on Foodal.
And for More Ideas…
If you use the leaves for a recipe and have stems leftover, consider them a vegetable in their own right, and prepare them separately.
They make an excellent substitution for asparagus, removing its earthy high note and replacing it with sweetness.
In addition to the leaves and stalks, the “crown” where the stalks originate is also edible and may be chopped up and added to soups and stews. To enjoy it at season’s end, simply dig up the entire plant, slice off the roots, rinse and prepare.
Garden to Table
Are you ready to grow nutritious leafy chard with its multicolor stems in your garden this year?
Eating a variety of colorful vegetables is one way to up your nutritional game, and the best ones are the ones you grow yourself.
Experience the joy of fresh-from-the-garden chard!
Tell us all about your experiences with chard in the comments section below.
Looking for some more leafy greens to add to your garden? Check out these growing guides:
- How To Grow Collard Greens, A Taste of Southern Culture
- Harvest Hearty Greens from the Garden: How to Grow Kale
- How to Plant and Grow Arugula: Make Your Greens Shoot Up Like a Rocket
Recipe photos © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: .
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!