Days to germination: 5 to 15 days
Days to harvest: 50 to 60 days (for the full head)
Light requirements: Full sun or partial shade
Water requirements: Regularly but not overly frequent
Soil: Loose and fertile
Swiss chard may not be the most common of garden vegetables, but it’s growing in popularity due to its versatility and hardiness. It may seem like just another leafy green, but you can cook the stalks like asparagus too.
Swiss chard has crinkly leaves and looks a lot like savoy spinach, but its easier to grow and doesn’t bolt in hot weather either. Varieties of Swiss chard all have green leaves, but you can find a multitude of colors for the stalks. You can grow pink, red, yellow or white to add some color to your garden. Fordhook Giant is one of the most popular home gardening varieties as it is easy to grow and is very hardy.
Like most dark green vegetables, Swiss chard is extremely nutritious. Very high levels of vitamins K, A, C and even E. You’ll also get magnesium, potassium and iron in every leaf.
Starting from Seed
Because of a deep central root, Swiss chard is not suitable for transplanting. You’ll have to start your seeds right out in the garden, which shouldn’t be a problem because they are fine with cooler weather.
Get your seeds planted out about 2 weeks before your final frost date, sowing the seeds around half an inch deep. Dig your soil thoroughly and add nutrients in the form of compost, aged manure or commercial fertilizer before you put in your seeds.
Your seed spacing depends on how you plan on using your Swiss chard harvest. If you intend on picking the small leaves as the plants grow, they will need much less space than if you are going to let the heads get larger.
For small leaves and a frequent harvest, you can just sprinkle the seeds over your intended Swiss chard patch and let the plants grow as they may. To get larger heads with good sized stalks for cooking, plant 2 or 3 seeds about 10 inches apart. Once they sprout, thin to 1 strong seedling in each location.
You should choose a sunny spot to plant your Swiss chard, but they are fine with a bit of shade during the hot weather. Planting your chard near taller growing plants is a good way to create shade later in the season when you need it.
Swiss chard is a very maintenance-free plant that won’t require too much work as it grows. They aren’t heavy-feeders like many other vegetables so you don’t have to worry about constantly feeding or fertilizing them. One good feeding of standard fertilizer near mid-summer is fine.
Water your plants regularly, but a bit of a dry spell now and then won’t harm them. Overly dry or hot weather can cause the plants to bolt, but if you cut off the new flowering stalk right away, you can continue to harvest leaves. Bolting isn’t the end of your crop like it usually is with leafy vegetables like spinach or lettuce.
Swiss chard is a very good container plant, and also makes a nice ornamental addition to a flower garden. The dark leaves and bright stalks are attractive, and the plants won’t overpower your flowers.
Like in the garden, how you space your plants will depend on how you intend to harvest. For easy leaf-picking, just spread some seed in your pot and watch your plants grow. Larger heads need more room, so plant 2 in each 12″ pot. Your containers should be at least 12″ deep as well.
Pests and Diseases
Though hardy, there are a few pests that can hurt your Swiss chard crop that you should watch out for. Your usual slugs and snails can be a problem for the leaves, so take precautions against them. The old-fashioned saucer of beer usually helps to draw them away from your plants, or some heavy sprinklings of diatomaceous earth can also kill slugs.
Leaf miners will chew tiny tunnels through your chard leaves and can be hard to get rid of. Remove the damaged leaves to keep them from spreading and spray with insecticide. If this is a big problem in your area, you can use a fine layer of mesh over your plants during the spring to keep the flies away. It’s the flies that lay the eggs, that turn into the little caterpillars doing the damage.
Downy mildew can target your Swiss chard if you have been watering too much or your plants are clustered very close together. Treat the mildew with fungicide, and thin out some of your plants to improve the air flow around the leaves. Don’t water your plants from above, soaking the leaves either. Direct the water right at the soil to help prevent mildew.
Harvest and Storage
With Swiss chard, harvesting and growing are somewhat the same because you can pick the leaves all through the season while the plant is growing.
Once the outer leaves have grown to about 4 to 6 inches in length, they can be picked. Only the outside leaves should be harvested like this, so don’t pick the smaller inside bud of leaves or you will kill the plant. Be gentle when cutting the leaves. Use a knife or garden clippers instead of pulling.
To use the stalks as a vegetable themselves, you will need to let the plants grow longer until they have formed a loose head and the stalks are large enough for use. You can still cut a few leaves off at a time at this point, or just harvest the entire head. When slicing the head free, leave a few inches of stem and your plant may recover and keep growing more leaves.
You can keep on picking leaves right until the first hard frost. A few light frosts won’t harm the plant at all. In mild climates, chard can be grown and harvested all through the winter as long as the weather is generally above freezing.
Its difficult to estimate your overall harvest because it largely depends on how often you pick the leaves, and how much you pick at any given time. A rough guideline is 2 or 3 plants per person, and you’ll have a good supply of chard all summer long.
You should harvest your Swiss chard when you intend to use it because it doesn’t store for very long after its been picked. Keep your leaves in the fridge for 3 to 5 days.
The smaller leaves can be frozen for longer storage too. Wash them and blanch for about 3 minutes, then freeze. Thawed leaves are fine for cooking but are not suitable for salads or raw uses.