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.
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.
Short version: I’m not here to condemn anyone who uses pesticides, as I’ve used them in the past and still use ant bait, but I’ve come to the conclusion that pesticides are terrible for the wildlife in the garden and when it comes down to it they don’t work that well in the long run. Caring for the wildlife in your garden allows creatures to do the job for you and also cares for the pollinators. Encourage small birds, hedgehogs, amphibians and predatory insects. Try other methods like picking infested leaves when harvesting, hunting for pests after dark, traps and cloches.
I have waged a constant war against ‘pests’ in my garden and I’m not slowing down in 2020. I’m afraid I’m not nice. I found a collection of about 30 tiny snails huddled up round the rim of a pot yesterday. They were so tiny and cute. I had to remind myself that they will very quickly become gooseberry sized monsters with voracious appetites. I squished as many as I could find. I then found a load of eggs a little later. I strongly suspected them to be snail eggs, but there is a possibility that they may be worm eggs. The internet failed me. There were matching pictures under both snail and worm egg searches.
Curiosity has gotten the better of me and I have contained them and will check weekly to see what happens. To be honest you can’t worry too much about this kind of thing. There’ll be plenty of snail and worm eggs in the neighbours’ gardens and in soil I haven’t dug. There’s only so much you can control. I took comfort in knowing that I had just removed about 30 definite snails less than 20 mins earlier.
Now I would be a hypocrite if I said that no one anywhere should use pesticides. I have used pesticides in the past. I don’t anymore (except for ant bait because we have evil bitey red ants) and I wouldn’t like to guarantee that I won’t use more pesticides in the future. It’s hard to state absolutes. However, I have concluded that you are better off trying your best not to use pesticides. It’s partly for the environment, but it is ultimately for selfish reasons. They just aren’t worth using. If you are on the fence or fond of using pesticides, then I hope to offer some thoughts.
Food chains and webs
So, those who remember GCSE biology might remember how energy is consumed up a food chain. This is a chain that would be quite realistic in our garden.
Sun –> kale –> caterpillar –> robin –> neighbour’s cat
Poisons tend to accumulate up food chains. Organochlorides (used in pesticides in the 1960s) were found to be the reason for death in birds of prey. Small birds were eating the poisoned pests. The predator birds were eating the small birds and the accumulation of the pesticides were killing the birds of prey or affecting their ability to reproduce (source).
One can assume that many of the smaller birds which weren’t being eaten were also dying. From an ecological point of view this is terrible, but also from a gardener point of view you’ve lost a useful ally that was merrily eating your pests daily.
Taking it back to my garden food chain – yes, the caterpillars drive me mental, but if I poisoned them, they in turn would poison the robins, which would then poison the cats. I don’t like the cats eating the birds and I don’t like the cats poo-ing in my garden, but I certainly wouldn’t want to poison them.
By killing robins, there’ll be less robins to eat the caterpillars.
Predator – prey interactions
Another GCSE Biology topic. When left to its own devices, nature has her own way of controlling populations. E.g. aphids and ladybirds can have intertwined population cycles.
Let’s start with aphids. Let’s say that there is a huge population of aphids. This means that there is a large amount of food available to ladybirds. This means that the ladybird populations thrive and increase. The larger number of ladybirds means that there are more predators to eat the aphids. This means that the population of aphids decrease and there will be more competition for food. At some point the population of aphids will be too low to support the large population of ladybirds. This means that the population of ladybirds will decrease from lack of food and increase of competition. The decrease in population of the ladybirds means less predators for the aphids so their numbers then increase… and we are back to the start of the cycle.
Basically, nature will even out the odds. You may kill off the pests, but you may also be hurting their predators too that were helpfully gobbling them up. Chances are you will find that your pests will be back as it’s impossible to eradicate every last one (certainly not from other people’s gardens too), so the cycle continues in its never-ending loop. You might find that the predator populations affected don’t recover as quickly, giving you a bigger problem later. Why battle the inevitable by introducing harmful chemicals?
Targeting your destruction
In addition, some pesticides will hurt bee populations and other pollinators, like hoverflies, that are essential for pollination. No pollination means no fruit. Don’t forget fruit also includes things like tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, cucumbers and the plethora of other squashes. There are bee friendly pesticides out there but there have been studies on how a cocktail of ‘non-toxic to bee’ chemicals have been killing off populations (source 1, source 2).
As a last, but rather important note. I also don’t want to kill my child as she grazes unashamedly on all my berries and salads.
Yes, it all sounds like doom and gloom but there are other options. These are some things that I’ve tried with varying degrees of success.
This is the most effective one for aphids and caterpillars and has the added advantage of real time results. Pick the most affected leaves for dinner and then soak them in salted water for 10 mins then rinse until clean. This removes the pests from the garden and washes them down the sink without introducing poisons. Anything too gross to consider eating can be put into the bin (not compost).
I like to grow things that you pick regularly from over a long season e.g. perennial kale that you can pick from all year round, or chard that you can pick for about a year before the plant needs to be replaced. If you’re harvesting from the plants at least once a week (it can be every day in the summer) then you’ll see all the signs of pest damage and can deal with it quickly.
The night hunt
I also like to go ‘hunting’. There is an instinct in many humans to go forage, gather and hunt. There’s no reason why we must go after animals as sport, there’s plenty of satisfaction in going out just after dark (when leaf chomping pests are very active) with a pair of disposable chopsticks and an old jar and capturing slugs, snails and moth caterpillars by torch light. It’s sounds rather disgusting (and it is) but it is also incredibly satisfying. What you do with them after is entirely up to you. I have drowned them and then left them outside to be eaten (or decomposed) or sealed them in a bag and chucked them into the bin. I told you I wasn’t nice.
The large snails were apparently introduced to Britain by the Romans as food. You could ‘clean’ the snails by feeding them on safe leaves, such as lettuce, (as they accumulate toxins from the plants that they feed on) for a few days and them eat them as escargot, but I’m afraid that is currently a step too far for me. Maybe do some research on this first – please don’t poison yourselves.
Encouraging natural controls
Looking back at the food chain, and the bigger food webs you can see what predators are suitable for your needs and either encourage them into your garden, or even buy some to release.
BIRDS: Encourage small birds into your garden with bird feeders, water trays and some cover, like bushes and trees. You can also plant some bushes with overwintering berries. The trees we added were fruit trees, which are not yet big enough, but some day they’ll provide useful shelter. If you provide nesting conditions you may be rewarded with extra ravenous chicks to eat bugs. Many of the garden birds will happily eat the caterpillars and snails. Even some birds with seed-based diets, like finches, will happily eat aphids for you. Some of the birds may also eat some of my berry harvest but so far, they haven’t been a problem and I wouldn’t begrudge them some as a thank you for eating the pests. If it becomes too much, then I can also use netting to protect the berries. My mum finds that wood pigeons (who don’t really eat insects) are a pest in her garden, eating the young brassica seedlings, but this is also easily solved with a bit of netting.
AMPHIBIANS: Frogs and toads don’t need a pond to make a home in your garden. They only need one for breeding. In our rainy UK weather, our garden seems to have enough damp, as there has been many a frog sighting in the past year. You will need to eliminate chemicals, especially slug pellets. It’s not just what they’re eating, but amphibians have semi permeable skin so even exposure to spraying is harmful. You can also provide places for them to hide, such as an upturned pot with a gap at the bottom or areas of long grass for them to hide in. They love hiding behind the clutter around our waterbutt, in our unkempt grass edges, under the rosemary bushes or behind the Chinese chive patch.
HEDGEHOGS: I’m not entirely sure if we’ve had a hedgehog, but I saw a poo that I really hoped may have been from a hedgehog. I don’t even know if there are any in our area as there are many foxes and cats about. If you have a fenced garden, providing a gap at ground level for them to get in can help. You can provide a hibernating spot with a pile of logs, pile of dead leaves or a compost heap (or even a special hedgehog house). Just be careful if you do clear up piles of leaves or turn your compost. Slug pellets are also terribly bad for them, so another good reason to avoid.
BENEFICIAL INSECTS: The main thing is by avoiding pesticides you protect the beneficial insects. It’s then worth encouraging predatory insects like ladybirds and lacewings by providing somewhere to overwinter. You could investigate a bug hotel of some sorts but do some research into the type of insects you are looking to attract and what they need. Apparently, some of the ones on the market look good but aren’t very functional. They will also need some maintenance and need to be kept in shady, sheltered places. I have picked off ladybird nymphs from roadside trees and put them in the garden in the past. I don’t know if they stayed.
Ladybirds eat spider mites. Spider mites cause most damage when the weather is hot. They do less well in rainy periods. They do respond to pesticides, but then you’ll kill the predatory insects too. In the past I’ve controlled these very effectively by removing all the affected leaves and spraying the plant well with a hose and then spraying with a solution of rosemary oil and water which is said to discourage the mites without harming their predators.
There are also a host of specific parasitic creatures you can buy to target a particular problem. We had a ridiculous amount of whitefly one year and bought sachets of Encarsia Formosa, which is a tiny (smaller than a millimetre) parasitic wasp that lays eggs in the scales of the whitefly. They are really only for use in a greenhouse where you can keep the population captive and protected, but we used them outside, and they were still fairly effective.
The damage to this leaf has been done by a leaf miner which is the larvae of a fly. Pesticides wouldn’t have been much use here anyway as the pest is protected by the leaf. Either a pesticide that is absorbed by the plant (possibly making it inedible) is required, or spraying needs to be timed for when the larvae has turned into a fly and emerges. For leaf miners there is a parasitic wasp you can buy but it’s easy enough to remove and bin affected leaves.
You can buy sticky traps for things like whitefly or you can make a slug trap out of an old plastic bottle and some beer. I’ll do a proper post on this to put in the ‘things to do’ section.
You can buy copper tape that you can stick around pots under the rim. It supposed to work as a barrier that slugs and snails can’t cross as their mucus reacts with an unpleasant feeling. Apparently it need to be fairly thick to be effective or they stretch across. Also be aware that the adhesive sometime is a bit poor. We’ve used these on pots and they seem to be effective. It’s hard to tell though if the plants in those pots would have been fine anyway. There’s plenty of other things they can eat in the garden without having to climb a pot. If the copper is even slightly unpleasant for them they could probably go elsewhere.
Yes, creatures have got to eat, they’re only doing what nature intended them to do. I would just like them to stick to eating a whole leaf at a time and not leave leaf doilies, or could they wait till a plant has grown lovely and big. They could have tender tips then. I wouldn’t mind so much. The frustration of a seedling eaten across a stem or an asparagus tip nibbled to death before it can fulfil it’s slender juicy destiny is the original reason I used to use pellets.
Cloches made out of old bottles have become my go to now for precious seedlings. Alternatively, plant for redundancy. Assume that a few of your seedlings won’t make it and plant a few more.
So… I’m just hoping to encourage the use of methods other than pesticides in the garden. If you have any helpful hints or anything that worked especially well for you, please feel free to share in the comments.
Mild tasting, spinach like, shoots and leaves that climb well, grow in shade, are perennial and can be grown from seed.
I can’t believe this vegetable, officially called Hablitzia tamnoides, exists. It seems to go against everything gardeners think of when they compare required effort and sun with the ability to produce food.
There is so much to love:
This is a perennial, so it will grow back year after year once it is established. Over a cold winter it will look like it has disappeared forever, never to return, but this is a hardy plant. The shoots will make a reappearance in late winter / early spring. This means that once established it makes a great filler of the hungry gap. The shoots can be harvested a couple of times before you leave it to grow in the spring.
Cold and shade
It prefers shade. It can tolerate half a day of sun. This feels rather unnatural, as we often talk about edibles needing a MINIMUM amount of sun. Pretty much every garden, especially those in the city with its large buildings, have some areas of deep shade. When you have a small garden this just feels like a waste. It’s not where you want to put your garden furniture as it’s not fun sitting OUT OF the sun. Almost nothing thrives. It’s a good place for a compost patch or a wormery but my the deepest shade is right next to my back door. The compost bin would live there if I was willing to share my kitchen with the clouds of fruit flies that have taken up residence in the compost. I have a constant urge to grow food in every available space and this and the hostas are my shade loving perennial saviours.
So we have 3 plants. One is in the deepest darkest shadiest part of the garden where it grows well with the hostas and wild garlic. One is under a fig tree. This was an error on my part that worked out OK. I didn’t realise how quickly and how large the fig tree would grow, but the Caucasian spinach does well scrambling up the branches in the shade.
Easily grown from seed
The seeds need a period of cold (stratification) before they’ll sprout. This sounds complicated, but all you need to do is sow BEFORE winter in a pot and just leave it outside to do its thing. If you sow in a pot, you can be sure of what you are growing before you place it in situ. I think bindweed can look a little similar.
Though bindweed has rather attractive flowers, I would advise you to eradicate it as soon as you see it. Once it takes hold it can be impossible to get rid of. It is also not edible.
The beauty of growing from seeds means that it’s easy to transport, save for another year and give to friends.
As I said, with the small garden, there is an urge to be able to use up every little bit of space. So, not only can you eat the early shoots, you can eat the leaves as it turns into a vine. If given something to climb, it will happily scramble up without any need to maintain or tie up. This is where climbers or tall plants are the most efficient. With the Caucasian spinach you get excellent production food per square foot of earth.
By early June there wass a twining messy clump of heart shaped leaves. Here it is has reached around 1.5m but could reportedly grow to twice that if given something that tall to climb. It got to the top of the frame at 2m this year.
Taste and texture
So after all it’s ease of growing it wouldn’t be worth it if it tasted rubbish. Caucasian spinach tastes wonderfully inoffensive. It is a green you can use lots of. It’s not sour like sorrel. It’s not bitter like many perennial greens. It’s just basically milder tasting than spinach even, and has the advantage that it doesn’t make your teeth feel furry the way that actual spinach does.
The young leaves feel thinner and not as succulent as spinach can be though.
The leaves can be used wherever spinach is used. They boil fine, fry fine, can be used to bulk out the vegetables in sauces and can be eaten raw in salads.
It prefers alkaline or neutral soil which is perfect for my garden. This may not be a bonus if you have a garden full of acidic soil. However, there are some things that actually REQUIRE acidic soil like blueberries, raspberries, kiwis and plenty of things that won’t mind acidic soil. Alternatively you can add lime to the soil, but that is something I would be far too lazy to do. An easier option would be to grow in a pot that you keep under alkaline conditions (though this may still involve adding lime).
So my third plant is in a very large pot full of compost. It’s large enough to accommodate the roots and I keep it well watered enough so it doesn’t dry out. It is doing terribly. I suspect it is a combination of the acidic compost (I did a soil test of the compost I use) and because it gets better sun than the other two plants.
I suspect soil pH is quite an important factor, but I’d have to wait till next year when I’ll move the potted one into more shade in order to draw a full conclusion.
It seems to be fairly resistant to the usual suspects in my garden.
So far the Caucasian spinach has survived the pigeons, the caterpillars, the aphids, the shield bugs. My biggest problem in the garden tends to be powdery mildew – especially with the brassicas. So any leafy green that is not susceptible to powdery mildew gets bonus points.
The only problem that I’ve had with Caucasian spinach is leaf miners. The little grubs live safely nestled between the layers of the leaf. If you were to look at the leaf from both sides you’d not be able to see the grub. Traditional pesticides wouldn’t help you here. Luckily I don’t use pesticides so it’s not something that has vexed me. Regular harvesting means that I’m often scrutinising the leaves. This means that as I see any leaves with signs of leaf miner I just pull the leaves off and bin them in food recycling. This removes the pest from the local environment so they can’t spread.
There are many things to love about this plant. I’ve only been growing it a couple of years so I’m interested to see how it’ll get on in the future and how long it will continue to survive happily without my intervention. I basically want more food with no more effort.