Swiss chard, an extremely vitamin-rich vegetable, is slowly making its way back into our gardens and onto our plates. With its colourful stems and unusually curled leaves, chard looks as fabulous as it tastes.
Chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. Vulgaris var. flavescens or cicla) has been grown in Britain since at least 1596. Despite its long history in the UK and also being grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, chard is not as popular these days. But this leafy green is making a comeback, and rightly so, seeing as chard is not only healthy and delicious but also easy to grow and extremely decorative in the garden bed. Read on to find out how to successfully grow Swiss chard at home, including its origin, care, overwintering and propagation.
Chard: origin and profile
Although one may not immediately recognise it by its appearance, chard is a cultivated form of the turnip (Beta vulgaris) and thus belongs to the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae). Close relatives are, for example, the beetroot (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris var. conditiva) and the sugar beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris var. altissima). This vitamin-rich vegetable goes by many names including Swiss chard, rainbow chard, silver beet, beet spinach, seakale beet, and leaf beet. It grows long stemmed leaves up to 30 cm in size. There are two main cultivars. Firstly, the most common type is the stalked chard of the Flavescens group, which has thick and crisp stalks in white, red, orange, green or yellow. The leaves are large and dark green and are eaten together with the stem. The other chard cultivar, the leafy spinach beet, belongs to the Cicla group, of which only the leaves are eaten. After harvesting, it grows back and can be cut again.
Chard is an ancient, useful plant that originally comes from the Middle East. It quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean region, where the ancient Greeks and Romans appreciated not only its delicious taste but also its medicinal properties. For example, it was used to treat gastrointestinal problems and anaemia. It is starting to find its way back into our vegetable and ornamental gardens and can be used in a variety of ways in the kitchen.
Is chard perennial?
Chard is a biennial plant that usually only flowers in its second year. It grows as a basal rosette in the first year and bears long-stalked leaves up to 30 cm long. Depending on the variety, the leaves and stems can have different colours and shapes. Chard flowers appear in the second year and are green and rather inconspicuous, growing on 1 cm long stems. The seeds are arranged in clusters, each containing two to five seeds. Varieties sown very early may bolt and flower in the first year.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is arguably the best substitute for chard. The two vegetables are very similar in taste and preparation. Another option is Pak Choi (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis), which is related to Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis), and also tastes similar to chard. In addition, chard can be replaced by sugar beet and beetroot. These are closely related to chard but have a more earthy flavour. Be aware that these veggies do not make good companion plants for chard. Find out which plants make great companion plants for chard in our other article.
Caring for chard
Chard prefers deep, humus-rich soil in a sunny to semi-shady location. It also has a high and regular water requirement. Once you have found the right location for your chard, it is easy to care for.
Watering and fertilising
Chard likes being moist, so make sure to water chard regularly. Always give it more water when the top layer of soil has dried out. With sufficient watering, the Swiss chard leaves and stems stay tender longer and taste better.
Tip: Mulch around the chard plants with grass cuttings or leaves to protect the soil from drying out and suppress unwanted weeds.
This leafy vegetable is a moderate feeder, so it needs sufficient nutrients to grow well. These can be provided, for example, via our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. Work this primarily organic fertiliser into the soil when planting to provide chard with everything it needs. Alternatively, work mature compost and horn shavings into the soil to feed the chard plants.
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Regularly hoe around the Swiss chard plants to keep the soil loose and increase mineralisation. This, in combination with sufficient water, promotes nutrient availability. At the same time, hoeing removes weeds.
Diseases and pests
The most common diseases affecting chard are powdery and downy mildew (Erysiphaceae and Peronosporaceae) as well as leaf spot disease, which is caused by fungi such as Alternaria, Ascochyta and Septoria. To combat this, remove infested leaves and plants and ensure sufficient air supply by increasing the plant spacing. This way the leaves dry more easily. The most common pests are aphids (Aphidoidea), the bright-line brown-eye moth (Lacanobia oleracea) and the beet leaf miner (Pegomya hyoscyami).
Tip: You do not have to worry about slugs eating your chard. They dislike this vegetable and tend to avoid it. Find more tips on growing chard here.
How to care for Swiss chard?
- Water sufficiently
- Fertilise with a slow-release fertiliser, alternatively with compost and horn shavings
- Mulch to prevent the soil from drying out
- Hoe to promote mineralisation and to remove weeds
Overwintering Swiss chard
Chard is usually winter-hardy and sprouts again in the second year. Above all, overwintering chard is worthwhile if you want to collect the seeds the following year. Nevertheless, it is useful to protect it from heavy frosts so that it sprouts again in early spring. To overwinter chard, cut back the leaves to 5 cm above the ground in autumn without damaging the crown or buds. Then cover the plants with an insulating layer of mulch, brushwood, straw or a fleece. For potted chard, cover the container with a bag or fleece. Stalked chard is much more sensitive to low temperatures than leafy chard. If you transplant the leafy chard into a greenhouse in autumn, you can even harvest it in winter. Unfortunately, this does not work for stalked chard. In this case, it is better to store the cut back stems in a box over winter. With a slightly moist substrate such as coconut fibre and wood shavings, the chard can then be stored in a frost-free, cool cellar. How well the Swiss chard survives the winter also depends very much on the variety. Find out about all the different varieties of chard in our dedicated article.
How can chard be successfully overwintered?
- Leafy chard is more resistant than stalked chard
- In autumn, cut back the chard to a hand’s width above the ground
- Cover the plants with a layer of mulch, brushwood, straw or fleece
- Cover planters with an insulating layer
- Transplant leafy chard to the greenhouse to harvest all winter
Propagation: collecting seeds from Swiss chard
Chard is propagated by seeds, which can be harvested in the second year. Make sure that you are actually collecting seeds from a biennial plant and not from a chard that has bolted in its first year. Stop harvesting from mid-June and watch the chard shoot and form flowers. Chard can cross pollinate with beetroot, sugar beet and mangelwurzel, so grow these species at least 300 m apart, or cultivate your chard plants together under fleece to prevent cross pollination. After flowering, the stems dry out and the seeds form directly on the stems. From the beginning of September, the seeds are ripe and can be easily stripped off the completely dried stems. Swiss chard seeds come in clusters – you can either separate them straight away or sow the clusters and prick out the plants later. After collecting, air-dry the seeds for another two to three days, then store them in a dry and dark place. Chard seeds are very durable and can be stored for six years or longer in a dry, dark place.
Instructions: saving chard seeds
- Stop harvesting leaves from mid-June of the second year
- Let the plants go to flower
- When the stems are completely dry, the ripe seeds can simply be picked by hand from the beginning of September
- Allow the seeds to air dry for a few days and then store them in a dry, dark place
Tip: Once the Swiss chard has flowered, it is no longer edible. At that point, it can only be used for seed production.
With its various growth forms and vibrant colours, chard is not only a lovely plant to look at – it is also a great vegetable to use in the kitchen. Find out everything you need to know about harvesting and storing chard in the following article.