(Swiss/Rainbow) Chard

Short version:

Also called leaf beet and perpetual spinach this easy to grow, winter hardy leaf is great for cold months and the hungry gap as a cut and come again green. It’s something you can still sow now in September to replace the things that have been harvested. It tastes great but can cause that furry feeling on the teeth and isn’t recommended for anyone who has kidney stones.  

In some pages on the internet swiss chard, rainbow chard, chard, leaf beet, perpetual spinach are all terms that are interchangeable and all versions of beta vulgaris subsp.cicla var.flavescens. From what I can gather the term swiss chard is sometimes used for the chard with white stems. Perpetual spinach is usually green stemmed and rainbow chard is a mixture of seeds of chard plants that are white, green, red (sometimes called ruby chard) and yellow (sometimes called golden chard).

How to grow

September is your last chance in the year for some chard sowing in the UK. They can be sown outside where they are to grow between March and September, depending on where you live. In London, where it is warmer, you can push to the boundaries either side of the sowing season. Up north (like Liverpool where my parents are), sowing April till August is a safer bet.

Sow in fertile soil in a sunny spot in drills between 1-2cm deep in rows about 30cm apart.

Chard seeds are like beetroot seeds in how the seed is actually a cluster of seeds. 1-4 seedlings can sprout from one seed. This means that you need to thin the seedlings to about 15cm apart once they have sprouted. If you have a cluster you can thin with a small pair of scissors as pulling seedlings out can sometimes pull up all the seedlings.

For this reason, and also because it means I can sow early and late in the season  I prefer to sow in pots (often made of old milk and juice cartons) indoors and then dig up the seedlings to thin them into individual pots. If you do this, handling the seedlings by their leaves leads to less damage than holding their fragile stems. I also do this because seedlings are dug up and pooed on by the local cats or devoured by the local gastropods. Planting out rather more well placed, substantial plants have been more successful for us.

In addition, with feeling like the apocalypse has been looming this whole year, our small garden is crammed full of edibles. There isn’t any space for the winter veggies yet. At some point the beetroots, carrots, onions, squashes, Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes, yacon and tomatoes will be harvested, and the garden will be very bare. So, this month I’ve sown kales, cauliflowers, Chinese veggies (kai lan, choi sum, Chinese cabbage) and chard indoors. Each plant has (or will have) its own tetra Pak pot on every conceivable window sill space. Once there is bare earth I’ll do some hole composting (bury my growing collection of green kitchen waste in holes about a foot or two deep) to add fertility and then plant out the winter veggies on top, which should be bigger and sturdier then.   

After the chard flowers it dies back and then needs to be dug out.

How to harvest

All the different types of chard will grow leaves on slender stems from the base. You can begin gently harvesting a few of the leaves when the plant is about a foot tall. Patience is rewarded with stems and leaves that are bigger and thicker and you can begin more substantial harvesting. Harvest the bigger outer leaves first by cutting close to the base.

When the weather starts to get really warm chard starts sending up thick (can be up to 3cm in diameter) flowering stems from the centre. These can be picked when immature and make a great bulky, fast growing vegetable. Once you cut the central flower stem, it will send up thinner stems from just below the cut. These can also be harvested. They become thinner and thinner, as you harvest, until they’re too fiddly to pick easily, but by continuing to pick the flowering stems you can prolong the life of the plant.

If you sow later in the summer, they become a biennial. They won’t mature before the weather turns colder and then provides a great source of food over the colder months and the hungry gap later on. They then will start trying to flower and subsequently die when the weather gets warm.

How they taste

Chard can be eaten raw, but I prefer to simply fry in a little butter and garlic with a sprinkling of salt. The stems need more cooking time, so I usually chop with scissors into 1 cm long pieces straight into the pan. I’ll fry for about 2 minutes before tearing (or cutting) the remaining leaves into bigger pieces before adding.

They also work well steamed, boiled or the stems are great roasted.

The leaves are soft, almost velvety and yielding when you bite into them. The stems have a crisp bite, like celery does or a beansprout.

They have a slight earthy taste, like beetroots, the red more so. The yellow maybe slightly nutty and the white and green sweeter. There is a slight metallic aftertaste and usually the same furry feeling on the teeth and tongue afterwards, like you get with spinach. This is due to the oxalic acid present. It combines with calcium that is also present in the leaves to form crystals of calcium oxalate. This is insoluble (doesn’t dissolve) in water so the crystals give you that film in your mouth. This also means that, though chard is high in calcium, you won’t be able to absorb much of it in the body as it is bound as oxalate. Whilst eating in moderation isn’t a health hazard for most, chard consumption is not recommended to people who have issues with kidney stones.   

By boiling chard, discarding the water and rinsing you can remove some of the calcium oxalate and some of that furry teeth feeling.

Problems

Growing chard is generally easy, though the slugs and snails can be quite fond of it. The biggest problem I find is the leaf miners. The grubs of these beetles live and burrow within the layers of the leaf. This is a reason in itself not to use pesticides as they don’t work when the culprit is protected by the leaf. You can protect with fleece, but I usually just rip the bits of the leaf off and dispose of (not compost) them to stop the grubs from maturing and then going on to produce it’s own offspring. The leaves can often carry on growing fine with holes in. Another way is to harvest all the affected leaves and then cut out the affected bits in the kitchen as part of your prep.

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