Richard C. Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.
For Release On Or After 02/22/13
By Dan Gill
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 planted more often. 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 to produce fresh greens into early summer.
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) is actually a variation of the beet (Beta vulgaris) that is grown for its edible leaves rather than the 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 leaf stems that somewhat resemble stalks 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, such as gold, pink and fuchsia.
The mild-flavored, nutritious leaf blades – which are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – 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 – steamed as you would asparagus and served with Hollandaise sauce, for example. Sliced stalks are also excellent when added to stir-fry dishes, or they can simply be chopped into and cooked with the greens. Young, tender chard leaves can be eaten raw, adding a beet-like 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. Chard’s large, fleshy leaf stems are most commonly either white or red, but you may see other types with shades 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 can simply 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 as plants needed to ensure we get a good stand of seedlings. You know the old saying, “One for the birds, one for the bugs and one for me.” This often leads to plants being too crowded, 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 them 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 from a plant. 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 in 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 often and shallowly with a hoe to control weeds, or hand pull weeds as needed. Gardeners 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 (multi-color) Magenta Sunset (dark pink) and Vulcan (red).
Despite the cold weather, a variety of vegetables can be planted in the garden in February, including beets, carrots, collards, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, radish, rutabagas and turnips. Plant transplants of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.
Plant seeds of eggplants, peppers and tomatoes in hotbeds, indoors under lights or in greenhouses to produce transplants that will be planted 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.Rick Bogren