Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris cicla) is a selection of the wild beet or sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima), the same plant that gave us the garden beet or beetroot (Beta vulgaris crassa). But instead of producing a swollen edible root, Swiss chard provides markedly thickened petioles and much larger leaves. Both are edible and can be used much like spinach, raw in salads or cooked. Moreover, Swiss chard complements spinach well as it starts producing when the ever-so-early spinach starts to go to seed. Swiss chard is however much easier to grow than spinach. In fact, it is probably the easiest salad vegetable.
You can sow Swiss chard early spring once the soil is slightly dry, even though there may still be a bit of frost in the air. Sow seeds 1/2 to 1 inch (1-2 cm) deep in a rich, well drained soil and a sunny location, either in the ground or in containers. As the foliage is beautiful (there are varieties with red, pink, orange, yellow, green or white petioles, a color that also extends into the foliage), Swiss chard looks as much at home in a flowerbed as in a vegetable patch. Don’t be afraid to sow it fairly densely, as the seedlings and young plants are edible: as you thin them, harvest the young greens for the kitchen, then leave about 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) between the final plants, the ones that will remain in the garden for rest of the summer.
The secret to Swiss chard in the home garden is to not do like supermarkets and cut the whole plant when you harvest. Instead, pick only the outer leaves. That way the plant will continue to grow new ones from the center throughout the summer… and your harvest can continue until severe frost. Depending on your local climate, you may still be eating fresh Swiss chard in November!
You can keep surplus chard seeds for about 4 years as long as you keep them cool and dry. And if you live in a mild climate (USDA zone 6/Agriculture Canada zone 7 or warmer), you will be able to produce your own Swiss chard seed, because the plant is a biennial and will bloom and produce seeds the second year. In colder climates… well, just buy more seed when you run out!
Swiss chard: so colorful, so easy to grow. No garden should be without it!