Try some Swiss chard in your vegetable garden

Daniel Gill, Bogren, Richard C.  |  2/2/2009 10:30:30 PM

Get It Growing For 02/20/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Swiss chard is a leafy vegetable that can be grown easily in Louisiana vegetable gardens during fall, winter and spring. It is reliable and very productive and should be more commonly planted. A cool-season vegetable grown primarily from October to June, it has better heat resistance than other greens, such as spinach.

Seeds or young plants can be planted now through March for production of fresh greens into early summer.

Swiss chard is actually a variation of the beet that is grown for its edible leaves rather than its root. It was probably first grown in Sicily and then spread to the rest of Europe. The leaf blades are large and fleshy and possess wide, succulent stems that somewhat resemble a stalk of celery. The leaf blades range in color from bright green to dark green. The stalks or leaf stems (petioles) may be white, red or a variety of bright colors.

The mild-flavored, nutritious leaf blades (rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants) can be separated from the leaf stems and cooked like spinach greens. Many people even compare the flavor of cooked Swiss chard to that of cooked spinach. Chard can be used in place of spinach in most recipes, although chard will need to be cooked a bit longer. The stalks may be prepared separately – for example, steamed as you would asparagus and served with Hollandaise sauce. Sliced stalks are also excellent added to stir-fried dishes, or they can simply be chopped into and cooked with the greens. Young, tender chard leaves can be eaten raw, adding a beetlike flavor to salads and sandwiches.

With its bold, wavy leaves and colorful leaf stalks, Swiss chard is an attractive plant and actually makes a colorful and unique addition to ornamental flowerbeds or containers. While chard’s large, fleshy leaf stems are most commonly either white or red, you can find types with stems of gold, pink and orange (a variety called Bright Lights has leaf stems that come in a variety of brilliant colors).

Soil preparation and fertilization of the Swiss chard are simple. If you already have vegetable beds prepared, you simply can plant the seeds or transplants into those beds now. If you are preparing a new bed – or reworking an existing bed – loosen the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, add a 4-inch layer of compost or rotted leaves, sprinkle a general-purpose fertilizer over the area following package directions, mix everything together thoroughly and rake the bed smooth. Work the soil when it is a little moist – not too wet or dry – and be sure you break up all the clumps when you incorporate the organic matter.

Although transplants will provide the quickest harvest, Swiss chard is easily grown from seeds planted directly into the garden. Seeds do best if they are planted about one-quarter to one-half inch deep, with four to six seeds per foot of row. One-half ounce of seed sows about 100 feet of row.

Once the seedlings are up and growing vigorously, you will need to thin them. We generally plant about three times as many seeds than plants we need to ensure we get a good stand of seedlings in the area. You know the old saying, “One for the birds, one for the bugs and one for me.” This often leads to too many plants in the area, and some must be removed to make sure the remaining plants have enough room to grow properly and be healthy and productive. Pinch off the seedlings you decide to remove. After thinning, young plants should be about 6 to 9 inches apart. (You can add the young plants that are removed when thinning to salads or a quick stir-fry.) If planting transplants, space them about 6 to 9 inches a part.

To keep the plants growing vigorously, sidedress the plants when they are about 8 inches tall using about one tablespoon of general-purpose fertilizer per plant.

The best way to harvest Swiss chard is to “crop” it. This is done by cutting off only the larger outer leaves. Cutting is preferable to pulling, which can damage the roots or stems. Entire plants are usually harvested only during thinning. Most varieties begin to produce after 60 days of planting seeds. When cropping Swiss chard, take no more than one-quarter to one-third of the leaves at one time.

Cultivate with a hoe often and shallowly to control weeds, or hand-pull weeds as needed. You can save back strain and labor by applying a generous layer of mulch. Good mulching materials are leaves, pine straw or even thick layers of newspaper. The few weeds that do come up through mulch can be easily pulled while they’re still small.

Some popular Swiss chard varieties are Rhubarb (red), Fordhook Giant (white), Geneva (white), Bright Lights (multicolored) Magenta Sunset (dark pink) and Vulcan (red).

Despite the cold weather, you can plant a variety of vegetables in the garden in February – including beets, carrots, collards, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, radish, rutabagas and turnips. You can plant transplants of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower and seeds of eggplants, peppers and tomatoes in hotbeds, indoors under lights or in greenhouses to produce transplants that will go into the garden in late March or early April. Cut Irish potato tubers into egg-sized pieces with one eye (called seed pieces) and plant them 4 inches deep and 12 inches apart in well-prepared beds.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu   

Editor: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu  

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