Available in a bouquet of beautiful, bright colors and featuring a mild, earthy flavor, Swiss chard is a delicious and interesting alternative to leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce. Ellen Ogden, cookbook writer and cofounder of The Cook's Garden seed catalog, praises Swiss chard as the quintessential kitchen-garden plant because of its long growing season and ease of use in a variety of recipes. Since you spend so much time working hard in your garden, why not try a plant that works hard for you?
Sowing. To prepare your soil for chard, blend 2 to 4 inches of compost into the top 6 inches. Direct-seed at a depth of 1⁄2 to 1 inch in spring, or in summer for a fall crop. You'll notice germination in about one to two weeks. If you prefer, you can grow transplants and transfer them into your garden after seedlings develop four to six mature leaves. When planting, space seeds or seedlings 6 to 8 inches apart.
Growing. Give Swiss chard plants 1 or 2 inches of water each week and spread mulch around them to conserve soil moisture and keep weeds at bay. In the early growth stages, protect seedlings and transplants with a row cover.
Harvesting. Start snipping and eating Swiss chard anytime after leaves form. To harvest mature chard this fall, cut full-size leaves from the outside of the plant.
Chard varieties come with a range of gorgeous rib and vein colors, so try planting a couple of different ones. We recommend glossy, green-leaved 'Fordhook Giant' for its crispness, high productivity, and snow-white ribs. 'Rhubarb' has rich, bright red stems and veins and a high vitamin content. 'Bright Lights' was named an All-America Selections winner in 1998 for its stunning array of gold, orange, yellow, pink, and even purple stems.
Problem Solving and Tips
While Swiss chard is relatively problem-free, be diligent about weeding and stay especially proactive about preventing early leaf-miner infestations.
Between April and May, leaf miners lay eggs on the underside of leafy greens such as Swiss chard, leaving blotchy brown trails in the foliage. Prevent these hungry critters from depositing their eggs by covering your chard with a floating row cover. Cut away infested leaves. Swiss chard is quick to recover and fast-growing, so any damaged plants should spring up again in no time.
Master's tip: Prevent leaf-miner infestations by planting chard in an area far from spinach and beets and in a location where spinach, beets, and chard have not been grown for two years, advise John and Aimee Good, who grow all of these crops at their Quiet Creek Farm, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
Newbie hint: Germination can be spotty in temperatures above 80°F. If you direct-sow chard seeds in the heat of summer, shade your soil.
Swiss chard is kind of like the vodka of the vegetable world: It mixes well with everything. Try using it as a substitute for spinach, kale, collards, or mustard greens. Here are three innovative recipes designed to inspire your own chard culinary creations.
Chard Chiffonade. Young leaves taste delicious raw, says David Joachim, coauthor of Fresh Choices (Rodale, 2004). He slices the leaves into thin strips and tosses them with pine nuts, blue cheese, and grape tomatoes. Top the salad off with a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar and season with sea salt and pepper. Serve on top of a mature chard leaf (right).
Swiss Chard Slaw. Kevin Ruch, chef and owner of 14 Acre Farm, in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania, created this simple riff on a summer classic. Julienne chard stems into inch-long pieces and steam them for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender-crisp. Slice the leaves into skinny strips and combine with slivers of red onion, finely sliced radish, and the stems. Toss the mixture with a light tarragon-based vinaigrette and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.
Chard Wraps. Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil. Place six to eight chard leaves (with stems) into the water and cook until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the leaves from the water and pat them dry. Cut off the stems at the base of the leaves. Using each leaf as a wrap, stuff it with your favorite filling, rolling it up as you would a burrito.
Swiss chard is chock-full of vitamin A, folate, fiber, and minerals like calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium. One cup of cooked chard contains 3 grams of protein, 7 grams of carbs, and only 35 calories. Surprisingly, this green veggie is also very high in sodium, at 313 milligrams per cup.