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All you need to know

Swiss Chard

If you are looking for a crop that combines good looks with exceptional flavour, Swiss chard ticks all the right boxes. If you missed sowing yours back in spring, you've got a second shot at getting this easy-grow veg underway this year

There aren’t many vegetables that combine head-turning looks with a delicious taste, but Swiss chard is certainly one of them. What’s more, you can make sowings right now to enjoy fresh leaves throughout the autumn and, with a little protection from cloches or fleece, winter too.

These versatile vegetables can be enjoyed for both their spinachlike, vitamin-rich leaves and their crisp midribs or stalks, which may be eaten in much the same way as fresh asparagus – lightly steamed or stir-fried with a knob of butter and a twist of pepper. Alternatively, harvest the plants young for a tender, cut-and-comeagain salad crop that keeps on supplying nutritious leaves.

The primary reason Swiss chard is such a winning vegetable to grow, however, is down to its vibrant stalks. They are available in almost every colour under the rainbow: red, orange and yellow, purple and violet, green or brilliant white – and virtually everything in-between. This varied colour palette makes chard more than just another leafy green, opening up the possibilities of using it in an ornamental border or sowing into pots on the patio where it can be admired at close quarters.

Swiss chard is closely related to spinach, but the similarities are few and far between. Despite being a cool weather crop thriving in temperatures between 15 and 18°C, chard can cope much better with extremes of temperature and is less liable to run to seed (bolt) in even quite hot weather. It will also withstand dryer periods with greater ease.

Despite its undemanding nature, you will still get the best results if you provide as ideal conditions as possible. Pick a sunny or part-shaded position. Chard can sit in the same patch of ground for almost a full year, so soil fertility is important. Ensure yours is as fertile and moisture-retentive as you can get it by digging in plenty of well-rotted organic matter such as homemade compost. Prepare a seedbed in which to sow by breaking up any clods of earth with the back of a fork and raking it down to a fine tilth. A week before sowing, rake in an organic fertiliser, such as concentrated chicken manure pellets, to give the soil a final nitrogen boost to feed the leafy crop.

Sow your Swiss chard seeds directly into the soil in rows about 45cm apart. Mark out the rows using a cane drawn along a string line to ensure a neat result, aiming for a depth of around 1–2cm. Drop one seed every 5cm and carefully cover them over. Firm along the row using the back of a metal rake to tamp down the soil and water it using a watering can fitted with a rose head.

If you’re sowing with the intention of enjoying a succession of smaller, cut-and-come-again leaves for salads, the distance between individual seeds can be reduced to as little as 1cm. The resulting plants can be thinned after a few complete cuts to allow a select number of them to mature to adult size and produce those brilliant stalks. Seed may also be sown two to three per module for planting out at their final spacing when they’re sufficiently large.

There are two windows for sowing chard. A spring sowing in April will ensure a harvest of leaves through the summer and autumn, while sowings made in late summer (up to the middle of August) will complete the cropping cycle, rewarding you with leaves from a few months on right through to the following spring.

It won’t take long for the seedlings to push through the soil, with most making an appearance within a fortnight. Summer-sown specimens may require some protection as the season progresses if they are to grow vigorously throughout the autumn and winter, and a blanket of horticultural fleece or a row of cloches should do the trick. Similarly, seed sown at the beginning of spring will achieve best results if given a protective blanket of fleece draped over a supporting frame. Although chard requires little special attention, the young seedlings happen to be a favourite of the bird population, so this protective blanket will not only keep late frosts at bay but will provide a barrier to curious beaks.

The first harvest of cut-and-come-again seedlings can be taken as soon as the young plants reach 5cm in height. They can then be cut a few more times before being left to grow on to adult size, when they will require thinning to about 30cm between plants to provide enough room to develop unhindered.

Keep developing plants free from competition by regular hand weeding and hoeing. Water in dry spells to keep momentum going and ensure a speedier harvest. Mature plants destined to sit through the autumn may also benefit from a mulch of organic matter to further suppress weeds.

Chard is unlikely to run to seed in the first summer, but if flower buds do appear, nip them off to guarantee all the plant’s energies are channelled into growing the crisp stems and iron-rich leaves. Also remove any yellowed or badly damaged leaves and add them to the compost heap, as they might otherwise provide a refuge for slugs and snails.

Swiss chard is capable of withstanding mild frosts but will appreciate protection once more sustained cold weather sets in. The extra warmth this creates will keep the plants growing through this period to provide valuable greens at a time of year when they will otherwise be in short supply. In mild winters you may be able to get away without protection, but if you have cloches and fleece to hand it makes sense to use them.

You can start taking your first helpings from cut-and-comeagain seedlings as soon as the plants reach 5cm in height. Carefully snip the leaves away, leaving the central and smallest ones intact, which will form the basis for the next round of leaves. Repeat two or three times before thinning to their final spacing and allowing them to grow on. For the real delicacy of tender greens allow plants to grow on to 15cm in length before cutting. Either cut across the entire plant, allowing it to regenerate for the next harvest, or slice away the outer leaves with a sharp knife and let the central ones grow on. They can be left to reach 30cm in height to achieve the prize crisp stalks. Swiss chard is best eaten fresh but can be stored in a polythene bag in the fridge for a few days.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Periodically check any covers to make sure plants are well protected during this coldest part of the year.

  • February

    Covers may be lifted in milder weather so that air can get to the plants. Keep on picking leaves as they become large enough.

  • March

    In warmer parts of the country the first sowings may be made towards the end of the month, but protect the young seedlings from birds and late frosts.

  • April

    This is the main month for sowing chard. Protect young seedlings if possible and remove all weeds. Alternatively, sow into modules.

  • May

    The first cut-and-come-again seedling cut may now be taken. Thin other chard plants to their final spacing as they become large enough.

  • June

    Continue thinning seedlings to leave 30cm between plants. and begin harvesting leaves of mature plants sown in spring.

  • July

    Keep cutting leaves and stems. Remove any yellowing or badly insect-eaten leaves and place on the compost heap.

  • August

    Continue to water in dry spells and keep summer-sown seedlings weed-free by regular hoeing and hand-weeding.

  • September

    Continue to water in dry spells and keep summer-sown seedlings weed-free by regular hoeing and hand-weeding.

  • October

    A mulch of organic material can now be applied to young plants to keep weeds at bay throughout the winter.

  • November

    The first sustained frosty spells can threaten from November. Cover plants with horticultural fleece or cloches to help maintain steady growth.

  • December

    In milder weather you should still be harvesting leaves. Pick just a few leaves from each plant to keep them growing strongly.

Next
An Ornamental Crop

An Ornamental Crop

The recent interest in Swiss chard is almost certainly down to its eclectic range of stem colours, lending decorative appeal to make them a winning ingredient in potagers and other ornamental plots. ‘Bright Lights’ is the most commonly available variety and will offer a great mix of colours on both plot and plate. Try sowing this chard into large containers filled with soil-based compost or a mixture of good garden soil with added organic matter. Thin them to similar spacings as ground-grown chards.

Another attractive combination involves growing red-stemmed varieties such as ‘Rhubarb’ which have dark leaves, with a paler variety like ‘Yellow Lights’. The contrast between light and dark will look stunning and can be used in parallel rows or alternately for a traffic light effect. You can also try dotting individual specimens of these colourful characters in-between other vegetables and ornamental plants to add an extra splash of interest.

Swiss Chard: Varieties To Try

  • Bright Lights

    This attractive mix of stem colours includes pink, yellow, violet, green, cream, orange and red hues for maximum impact. Pick the leaves young for use in salads, or leave them to mature for dramatic effect.

  • Bright Yellow

    Striking, broad, luminous-yellow stalks make this variety a real eye-catcher. It displays good winter hardiness and grows relatively quickly. Use in salads or cooked as a leafy vegetable.

  • Fordhook Giant

    Cook the deep green leaves separately and serve as an iron-rich spinach-type dish, and lightly steam or chop up and stir-fry the creamy-white stems to enjoy an irresistible crunch.

  • Yellow Lights

    The stunning bright yellow leaves make this a great choice for anyone wanting to enhance the visual appeal of their plot. Grow them in the border or in pots to take advantage of their decorative appeal.

Chard In Seed Catalogues

You may be forgiven for thinking that this leafy crop originates from the land-locked central European country but the ‘Swiss’ part of the name was in fact applied in the 19th century by English-language seed suppliers to set it apart from the French charde or chardon. Even the Swiss do not identify it as a national vegetable, instead referring to it as ‘stielmangold’ (plain mangold) in the German-speaking areas of the country and ‘blette’ in French-speaking parts. In Britain you may see Swiss chard called seakale beet, silver beet or simply leaf beet, while some seed catalogues have dispensed with the ‘Swiss’ moniker altogether – so make sure you look for varieties under all possible names.

Swiss Chard

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