Swiss chard, or silverbeet, (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) is upstaged in the garden by its close cousins, spinach and beets. It's a biennial vegetable that's extremely easy to grow, and it looks as good as it tastes. The glossy, crinkly leaves come in a multitude of colors and keep growing as you harvest individual leaves. Considered a cooking green, young chard is also very delicious when eaten fresh. Chard is a great source of minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as an excellent source of vitamin A (it's also surprisingly high in sodium).
Nutrition aside, Swiss chard is worth growing for its gorgeous foliage: The large, thick, ruffled leaves and contrasting stiff mid-rib and veining are the picture of nature's bounty. The leaves grow from a crown, at the base of the plant and come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, yellow, green, red, and orange. This biennial flowers in its second growing season, when small greenish flowers form at the top of seed stalks.
Chard grows fastest and best in the relative cool of spring and fall and is planted before the last spring frost or about six weeks before the first fall frost. Most varieties are ready to harvest in 50 to 60 days. It's best to harvest while the leaves are still glossy, snapping two or three leaves off of each plant. If you leave the crown it will fill back in with more leaves.
|Botanical Name||Beta vulgaris var. cicla|
|Common Name||Swiss Chard, Silverbeet, Silver Beet, Leaf Beet, Seakale Beet, Spinach Beet|
|Plant Type||Biennial vegetable|
|Mature Size||18 to 24 inches tall, 9 to 12 inches wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to partial shade|
|Soil Type||Rich, well-draining|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic (6.0 to 6.4)|
|Hardiness Zones||6 to 10 (biennial); 3 to 10 (annual); USDA|
How to Plant Swiss Chard
You can start chard from seed or plant. Direct sow seed outdoors, about two weeks before your last spring frost date. Alternatively, you can get a head start by starting seed indoors three to four weeks earlier and planting the seedlings after all danger of frost. You can also seed new chard plants in late summer, for a fall garden.
Chard seeds often come in clusters of two to three seeds, so some thinning will be necessary. Plant seeds about 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep and 2 to 4 inches apart. You'll thin or plant seedlings about 4 to 8 inches apart, although you can always harvest young plants if you don't thin enough and things get crowded. It's best to cut plants when thinning so as not to disturb the roots of the remaining plants.
To enjoy your harvest, you can chop it up and lightly cook as a wonderful side dish, or you can season with garlic and olive oil or try it with Indian seasonings. Chard makes a hearty replacement for spinach, and the stems can be grilled or roasted, in place of asparagus. Older chard will cook more evenly if you separate the stems from the leafy parts. Chard can also be blanched and frozen, for later use, just like spinach.
Swiss Chard Care
Chard will tolerate partial shade, but it does best in full sun, at least four to six hours per day.
Chard likes a slightly acidic soil pH of about 6.0 to 6.4, although it will tolerate a more neutral soil. Since you're growing chard for its leaves, you'll want a rich soil, with lots of organic matter. Mulch will keep the soil moist and the leaves clean.
Keep the plants well watered, and harvest regularly, to keep them regrowing and to extend the harvest. They typically need 1 to 1 1/2 inches of water per week.
Temperature and Humidity
Chard can overwinter in USDA hardiness zones 6 to 10, but it is only a biennial, so it will go to seed quickly in its second year. It can be grown as an annual in zones 3 to 10. It can take a light frost, but you will lose your plants if the temperature dips below freezing for more than brief periods. If you plan to save seed, the plants must be overwintered.
A mid-season side-dressing with compost or manure will keep chard plants fed. If you have poor soil, fertilize with a general-purpose vegetable fertilizer.
Swiss Chard Varieties
- 'Five Color': Also called 'Rainbow': leaves and stems come in a rainbow of colors; actually a blend of different-colored, old heirloom chard plants, each grown separately before the seeds are combined
- 'Fordhook Giant': Great flavor and a vigorous grower with greenish-white leaves
- 'Perpetual': Tastes very similar to spinach; regrows leaves quickly as outer leaves are harvested
Common Pests and Diseases
Probably the biggest pest of Swiss chard is deer. Although it's not a favorite plant, they will eat it when there's not much else available, especially in the fall. Slugs will also chomp on chard; they'll Swiss-cheese the leaves and tunnel into the ribs.
Cercospora leaf spot can cause brown patches on the leaves. Providing good airflow and removing affected leave will help keep this to a minimum. Viral diseases can distort the leaves and stunt growth. For this there is no cure, but some plants do outgrow the disease, so be patient.