How to grow Swiss Chard
Swiss Chard Growing Guide
How to grow Swiss Chard
There aren’t many vegetables that combine head-turning looks with a delicious taste, but Swiss chard is certainly one of them.
These versatile vegetables can be enjoyed for both their spinach-like, 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-come-again 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.
Growing chard from seed
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 fertilizer for Swiss chard, such as concentrated chicken manure pellets, to give the soil a final nitrogen boost to feed the leafy crop.
Planting chard seeds
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 baby Swiss chard 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 (planting time: 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. Growing Swiss chard in winter is a great option for keeping your plot productive at a quieter time of the gardening year.
Swiss chard plant protection
It won’t take long for the seedlings to push through the soil, with most making an appearance within a fortnight. Summer-sown plants 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.
How to cook Swiss chard
There are plenty of ways to eat Swiss chard, see our recipe section for more ideas. You could add the younger leaves to a salad, using them where you would normally use lettuce. To brighten it up, try chopping up the stalks of the ‘Bright Lights’ variety and adding them to your salad. Alternatively, leave them whole and stuff them with cream cheese – a colourful way to prepare them, which might just convert Swiss chard sceptics into fans of this versatile vegetable.
Growing in an ornamental container garden
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. Try sowing 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.
Growing Swiss Chard month-by-month
Periodically check any covers to make sure plants are well protected during this coldest part of the year.
Covers may be lifted in milder weather so that air can get to the plants. Keep on picking leaves as they become large enough.
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.
This is the main month for sowing. Protect young plants if possible and remove all weeds. Alternatively, sow into modules before transplanting Swiss chard seedlings later.
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.
Continue thinning seedlings to leave 30cm between plants. and begin harvesting leaves of mature plants sown in spring.
Keep cutting leaves and stems. Remove any yellowing or badly insect-eaten leaves and place on the compost heap.
Continue to water in dry spells and keep summer-sown seedlings weed-free by regular hoeing and hand-weeding.
It’s more of the same this month, watering and weeding regularly to boost your crop.
A mulch of organic material can now be applied to young plants to keep weeds at bay throughout the winter.
The first sustained frosty spells can threaten from November. Cover plants with horticultural fleece or cloches to help maintain steady growth.
In milder weather you should still be harvesting leaves. Pick just a few leaves from each plant to keep them growing strongly.
Caring for your Swiss Chard plants + problems
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.
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How to harvest Swiss Chard
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.
How to harvest Swiss chard so it keeps growing
Most gardeners pick their chard leaves when they’re around 20–30cm in length, but any that grow on to be a little larger will be fine to eat. Try to harvest the mature outer leaves first to encourage new growth from the centre. Make sure you leave the heart of the plant – this produces the new foliage and so shouldn’t be removed as long as you want to be able to keep harvesting. Taking regular pickings will help to ensure a steady supply of greens – cut from the base of the plant, or gently pull down and twist off.
Varieties of Swiss Chard
Swiss Chard varieties to try
This attractive rainbow Swiss chard 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.
Striking, broad, luminous-yellow stalks make this variety a real eye-catcher. It displays good winter hardiness and grows relatively quickly. Use in Swiss chard salad or cooked as a leafy vegetable.
F1 hybrid variety. 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.