(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.

Sorrel

Short version:

A perennial that self-seeds itself into a nuisance because (I think) it’s hard to consume in large quantities due to its tart taste. It’s a lovely interesting one to add to a salad instead of a vinegarette and it’s refreshing with any rich or fatty food. It is a good plant for the hungry gap. Avoid if you suffer from any kidney diseases.

I’m a bit ambivalent about sorrel. Doesn’t sound like a great start but hear me out. It’s wonderfully easy to grow and some varieties are a perennial evergreen so you can eat it all year round but it can be a bit of a shocker to the taste buds. My issue is that despite being able to easily grow immense amount of it, I am saddened to find that I cannot EAT immense amounts of it.

Despite being a perennial, it is apparently often grown as an annual as the taste deepens with age. I like to grow it as a perennial because it’s much lazier.

There are a few types of sorrel you can grow. This is where I show my lack of horticultural education. I have heard of broad leaf sorrel, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, French sorrel and red veined sorrel. Sadly I have only grown the last two on that list, so I feel it would only be fair to comment on those.

How to grow

Both red veined and French are incredibly easy to grow from seed. The seeds are tiny, but the plants will grow to about 50cm tall and 50cm wide so do not be too temped to plant them too close together. You also don’t need many plants, especially as they self-seed very well. It appears to do very well in almost any soil. It seems to grow very well in the paving cracks, where they have self-seeded. I should weed, but I like having edibles that don’t take up any space in the vegetable patch (though pretty much all the garden IS the vegetable patch). It has a deep root system so survives well under most circumstances. This tap root does mean that it is hard to dig out when well established and doesn’t transplant well. They do well in light shade areas and in full sun.

The French sorrel seems to be evergreen and we have been eating it through the autumn and winter. The red veined sorrel, however, dies back in late autumn and then reappears in late winter. You may find that the plant dies if the soil gets frozen in a very harsh winter and kills the roots.

Pinch out the flowers to keep the plant providing for longer. The red veined will die back after seeds appear. The French loses productivity when it seeds.

If you do want to grow it as an annual you can leave the plant to self-seed before pulling out the old plant. If you want to save seeds you can collect the mature pods and let them dry thoroughly before storing.

How to harvest

For the French sorrel harvest all year round, taking the outer leaves first. It grows quickly as the weather warms up and is a welcome green in the spring and in the hungry gap. The leaves remain soft no matter how large they get. For the red veined sorrel harvest the baby leaves. The larger leaves get tough and bitter. Treat sorrel as a cut and come again salad.

How it tastes

It is tart. That means that it is sour – but that’s the fun of it. If it was fruit, I’d be complaining. As it’s a green that requires no work and grows like a weed, tart is interesting. The taste is due to oxalic acid. I have read lots of things about oxalic acid. This is a good website that talks about it – eatthatweed.

There are many good points and even better, the information is referenced so you can decide for yourself how accurate it is. The main points are that oxalic acid exists in many of the things we eat, it binds with some nutrients but if you blanch it (discarding the water), it removes a third of all the oxalic acid and most of the soluble oxalic acid so the insoluble stuff pass through the system. It can also be mixed with high calcium ingredients like yoghurt to bind it. There has been some links between oxalic acid and kidney stones, but you’d have to eat a hell of a lot of it.

It’s lovely shredded and added into a salad. It makes a great sorrel soup that is popular in countries in the rest of Europe. It is great in crispy duck pancakes (which seems to be my default use of many of the unusual raw greens).

The blanching that removes much of the oxalic acid will also soften the taste. If making soup, make sure you discard the water used for blanching if you want less of a kick.

A little is lovely in oily or creamy recipes, cutting through the richness. So, it works well in salads with rich dressings, cheese or cured ham or in creamy sauces and soups.

There is an easy way to shred sorrel:

I’ve read that sorrel gets sourer as the leaves get older. With the French sorrel I’ve found that there’s no difference in the taste of any of the leaves. With the red veined sorrel any leaves longer than 2 inches tend to be bitter and the leaves are tough. It’s a bit like chewing paper. The red veined stuff looks great though, so it can be something pretty to mix into your beds for a bit of colour used for just baby leaves.

I may not have sold it that well, but I don’t want you cursing me when you eat it after spending months growing it. It’s a bit like Marmite. Still, I like having it in the garden and sneaking it into dinners. Besides, it’s incredibly difficult to get hold of in the shops and I feel like some sort of gourmet foodie when I say I’ll just pop into the garden (in any month) and make some sorrel soup.