Swiss Chard is a Gardener's Dream
It's easy to grow, simple to care for and good for you, too!
By Lori Lau Grzybowski, Associate Editor
Okay, I'll confess.
Many times, I have zipped past the Swiss chard at my local farmers market on my way to more glamorous fare like broccoli and pattypan squash. But, in my defense, that was before I knew I was passing up a veggie superhero— one that offers a powerful punch of vitamins and a variety of preparation options. After all, Swiss chard's leaves and stalks work well in salads and cooked dishes. And I've since learned that they're terrific stand-ins for asparagus or spinach, too!
My Chard Consultant
It was Nancy Stumpf of New Berlin, Wisconsin who set me straight on the bountiful benefits of chard. Nancy, who grows and sells organic chard along with heritage tomatoes, green beans, tomatilloes and purple kohlrabi, knows that even health-conscious veggie lovers sometimes need a little encouragement to try the unfamiliar. So she talks up her unusual veggies and even hands out cards that offer easy recipes and impressive nutritional details. Not that Nancy grew up eating chard. Though she's a lifelong gardener, she began growing the vegetable only a couple of years ago. She discovered it while looking for something unique to grow and sell. But it wasn't long until she set a place for chard at her own dinner table.
"I usually end up eating what doesn't sell, and my first year, I was eating chard about once a week," she says with a laugh. "But lately, I've been selling out of it!"
Nancy likes to saute Swiss chard with garlic and onions, adding zucchini and hot peppers if she has them. Repeat customers tell her they put cream cheese or peanut butter on the raw stalks—much the way they might with celery—for a quick, crunchy snack.
Let's Get Growing!
Chard is super-easy to grow, making it an ideal choice for beginning gardeners. It thrives even in poor soil. But Nancy reminds me that like any plant, it responds well to compost and other good gardening practices. You can start seedlings indoors and transplant, or start from seed outdoors just before the last frost. Either way, chard is likely to take off. Plant disease is rare, and insects tend to leave it alone. Even when cucumber beetles drawn to Nancy's squash lingered in her chard, all it took was a vacuum cleaner to combat the pests, and she enjoyed her harvest unhampered. Since then, she's tried a kaolin clay spray approved for use by organic growers and has been pleased with the results.
Harvesting starts as soon as the leaves grow large enough to use, with young plants providing the best flavor. Don't worry about cutting them to about an inch above the soil, or cutting stalks from the outside. These plants replenish for re-harvest again and again through the fall, and the leaves get tastier as the weather gets cooler. Nancy says a friend calls her prolific chard "cut and come again" chard.
You can choose from several varieties. Nancy has about 30 to 40 plants divided among 'Ruby' chard, sometimes called "ruby red" for its pink stalks, and golden chard, which she thinks grows slightly better. A third, rainbow chard, features stalks in a multitude of colors, from deep magenta and pink to orange and yellow. It's clear that this amiable vegetable and I have some serious catching up to do. Come spring, it'll get a place of honor in my new garden—and in my kitchen!
5 Reasons to Grow Chard
- Chard produces in less-than-ideal soil and in shade.
- It resists most plant diseases, and insect infestations are fairly rare. (Watch for deer in fall.)
- Chard requires little care - just water regularly, and cut and discard any leaves that wilt or turn brown before you can harvest them.
- Long after your asparagus, spinach and other greens close up shop for the season, Swiss chard keeps on giving, right up to the first hard frost. A 4- to 6-foot row of plants spaced 8 to 10 inches apart will keep a family in the green all season.
- It's pretty! Those bright stalks and shiny ribbed leaves look right at home in a flower border.