(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.

Watercress

Short version:

A punchy, mustardy perennial salad leaf with small white flowers that tastes much more benign when cooked. It is low growing, roots all over the place, does well in some shade and can feed you in winter.

Nasturtium officinale is its Latin name, though it isn’t closely related to nasturtiums, which have the Latin name Tropaeolum majus. They are similarly spicy when eaten raw, but come from different families.

Growing watercress

First things first – watercress does not need to grow in water. You do need soil that has plenty of organic material though, as it needs to be able to retain water well. It also gets rather sulky when you don’t water it enough and rewards your neglect by being tougher to eat and spicier. That is not a problem for most of the year here in the UK. It can grow in pots, in raised beds or straight in the ground and it deals well with shade and sun. It prefers a light shade, but we have an unexpected watercress patch in the sunnier front garden that does better in winter. I call it unexpected as it grew itself from some hole composted watercress. I didn’t have the heart to remove it, but now I love that it invaded this spot.

You can grow it from the tiny seeds which can be sown in late winter / early spring. Alternatively, they grow well from cuttings. You can even see it when you buy bags of salad with watercress. Sometimes you see little white roots at the leaf nodes. The plant will happily send out these little roots wherever the stems touch the soil or water sources.

The plant can grow to 15cm but generally it will happily creep along the surface of the soil, anchoring itself with its roots as it goes and forms a wonderful edible ground cover. It keeps the garden from looking barren in the winter and provides a welcome source of green nutritious leaves through the colder months. Because it does well in part shade, as the plants fill out in the spring it continues to do OK. It’s only when light is completely blocked out by other plants thriving in the summer or when the flowers develop it will start to perform badly. In winter it can go a little purple or die back a bit when the weather is freezing. It doesn’t seem bothered by a few overnight frosts.

After the watercress dies back after very cold weather or after it has flowered it can recover. It is therefore a useful perennial and if left to its own devices it will propagate itself in its creeping, rooting manner. I sowed the seeds in spring 2017, ready to take with us as we moved. I then planted into its semi shaded spot in a raised bed in the back garden that summer (I would have planted it sooner had we been able to move in sooner). Since then it has happily spread, and I have been happily eating it since. I don’t do any work with the watercress beyond harvesting.

Harvesting watercress

You can start harvesting as soon as you think your plants can provide you with enough to eat. Try not to pull the whole plant out, though you might find yourself pulling at roots where the stems have started to root. It’s a good way to keep it in check though. I harvest either with scissors or by severing the stems with a fingernail. I’ve found that where the watercress hangs over the edge of raised beds or borders, the stems don’t seem to develop roots as well and harvesting is easier. Roots also don’t taste great.

Harvesting flowers is a good idea as they are tasty and prolongs the harvesting period. Once the plant produces seed it isn’t much use for eating until it recovers late autumn / early winter.

Eating watercress

Watercress can be eaten raw as a salad leaf, but I find it hard to eat much due to its spiciness. My other half and little one will not touch the leaves when they are raw. Little one has tried several times to eat the flowers. She knows they’re edible and keeps checking to see if they taste as good as they look. The reaction is always the same. She spits them out and gets rather sad. I like to think that it’s a sign that she’s going to be a scientist… the need to keep testing. The flowers basically taste similar to the leaves with a slightly sweet hint. The roots are bitter so best avoided.

I find that everyone is happier if they are blanched or added to soups. You can make a yummy (and very green) soup from watercress. I’m rubbish at following recipes so I won’t give you a proper one but you basically: