Chard, also known as Swiss chard, is a biennial, well suited to the British climate. Part of the beet family beta vulgaris, it’s related to sugar beet, beetroot, and spinach beet (perpetual spinach).
Apparently, French seed catalogs sold cardoon (Cynara cardunculus, also known as artichoke thistle) seeds and chard seeds under the same name, so Swiss was added to distinguish these two distinct plants.
Dr Andrew Weil MD
Chard likes moist but well-drained conditions, with some well-rotted compost dug into the soil. We sow indoors in early spring and the plants are ready to go out in May.
There are many different varieties of chard available in many different colours. We take the easy option and go for Bright Lights, which is a rainbow mix. This is also economically sensible, as there are many seeds in a packet. If you wanted to make your rainbow up from individual varieties it would cost quite a lot and you would have more seeds than you can get through in a year, unless you have a very large field.
Each seed will produce more than one plant, so we sow the seeds in compost in little pots. When they’ve germinated and reached a reasonable size (about 3 or 4 cm), separate them and put them in slightly larger pots to grow on. Some people recommend cutting out the smaller plants and just leaving one so as not to disturb the roots, but this seems wasteful and we haven’t had too many losses by separating them. By the time the plants are big enough to be planted in the vegetable patch, you can see what colour they’re going to be, so if you want to be creative with your veggie display, that’s the time.
The plants should keep you going all through the summer. Just be aware that if the weather gets really warm, they may bolt. This means throwing up a tall shoot from the centre of the plant, which then forms seeds. You can try cutting out this shoot to save the plant but you may have to give in and harvest the whole thing. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep sowing seeds at regular intervals, so that you can replace any that go to seed.
Apparently, if you keep chard protected from the worst of the weather it will survive the winter and start to grow again in the spring. Unfortunately, we ate all our chard last summer so we had nothing left with which to support this theory. We intend to keep some plants this year as we found it very difficult to buy organic greens this spring. We do have some cloches so we should be able to test this out. We’ll post an update next year.
As chard prefers neutral to slightly alkaline soil, ideally rich in nitrogen, lots of compost is good. Grass has a lot of nitrogen, so a good way to get some back into the soil is to use grass cuttings if you have a lawn. Ideally, dry them out in the sun and sprinkle them onto the soil around the plant, or you can mix them in with compost. In wet weather, you can still use cuttings as a mulch. Make sure you just add a thin layer, or it can attract slugs. If you’re gardening organically, of course it’s important to just use grass that hasn’t been treated with chemicals such as weed-killers.
We use Vitax Organic Liquid Seaweed when planting out, and as a feed every fortnight at the height of the growing season. It’s rich in potassium, magnesium and trace elements. We’re also experimenting with Emiko EM-1 – a kind of probiotic for the soil.
While the chard is maturing, you can cut a few small leaves for salad. Because it’s high in oxalates though, chard is best eaten lightly cooked, so the majority is best left to grow bigger. When mature, cut whole leaves from the outside of the plant, right down at the base. New growth will keep coming from the middle of the plant.
We haven’t had much trouble with pests and diseases, but birds do like the young leaves, so we keep our veggies netted. Chard is not that susceptible to bugs. Aphids are the most common.
If sowing direct into the ground, watch out for slugs and snails, as they’ll happily munch away at seedlings. Mostly they lose interest as the plants grow, though you might see a few holes here and there. This is another advantage of sowing indoors, then planting out when the plants are bigger.
Downy mildew can be a problem when the weather is cool and damp. Make sure you give each plant enough space, so the air can circulate.
Cercospora Leaf Spot, a type of fungus, can be a problem in similar conditions. It starts as small brown spots, ringed with red. Eventually these will grow, and affect the whole leaf. To prevent it spreading, cut out all affected leaves as early as possible.