It’s no secret that some vegetables are easier to grow than others. And certainly, chards – also known as leaf beets – are one of the easiest. Grown for their leaves, these hardy, heat tolerant and healthy vegetables only need a fertile, moist soil to produce bountiful harvests through the summer, autumn and winter.
If you grow beetroot, then you are already familiar with chard – they are simply beetroot replicas stripped of the swollen root, which explains their subtle earthy flavour. The leaves are as easy to cook as they are to grow, and Italian and Lebanese cooks have adopted these vegetables as their own. They are also a favourite of British Punjabis, who grow vast quantities of plants in their allotment gardens.
The leaves – which grow upright from ground level – are naturally divide into two easy-to-distinguish parts.
- A stem-like bottom part is called the petiole, and it varies considerably in width from variety to variety: it is, for example, quite narrow in Perpetual Spinach and much wider in Swiss chards like White Silver.
- Attached to the top of the petiole is a broad, paddle-like blade intersected by a network of prominent veins. Though usually chopped up and cooked together with the petiole, the blade can be used by itself for wrapping around a mixture of rice and minced lamb to make Greek-style dolmas.
There are dozens of varieties of chard sold in Britain, and they can be distinguished from each other by the colour of their petioles and the veins in the leaf blades. For example, both are light green in Perpetual Spinach; white in White Silver Swiss Chard and red in Rhubarb Chard. The most spectacular variety of all is Bright Lights, which produces a mixture of plants whose petioles and veins range in colour from red, pink, yellow and orange.
Technically speaking, chard ‘seed’ is a fruit with a corky texture that hold several true seeds. When properly sown, these fruit can produce one or more seedlings, though sometimes nothing at all will germinate.
Chards are ideal British vegetables that are well-adapted to growing outdoors. Sowing can commence in March to April, though it shouldn’t be done any earlier since cold weather causes them to bolt, bringing their productive life to a quick end. A timely sowing in these two months will provide good eating throughout the summer and autumn, and plants can even be harvested over the winter if the temperatures don’t drop too low. But as cold conditions stimulate chards to bolt, plants will bolt after growing through the winter season.
Chards are normally grown as single plants spaced about 30 to 35cm apart each way. To establish a crop, sow seed to a depth of 12mm directly into fertile, well-worked ground that has a pH of at least 6.0. For a good stand, be sure to over sow, then thin the seedlings down to the correct spacing once germination seems complete.
Alternatively, you can start a crop as transplants by sowing two seeds in each cell of a compost-filled module tray, thinning down to one seedling per cell. Transplanting can begin once the roots have filled the cells.
If you have a tunnel or greenhouse, you can overwinter a crop undercover – it will be more productive over the winter than one grown outdoors. To establish the plants, sow seed in module trays in the beginning of September, and transplant the seedlings into the tunnel/greenhouse in October or when the summer crops have been cleared.
Chard leaves can be harvested at any size, from baby leaves upwards. Depending on the variety, the leaves can grow to a height of 50 to 75cm, but at this point, they tend to be rather tough, so better to harvest them at a younger stage. To harvest, individual leaves can be cut as needed, leaving the smaller, inner ones to continue growing, or the whole plant can be cut, removing all the leaves, just above the base of the plant. New leaves will regrow, and will be ready for harvesting again very quickly.
To add to their appeal, chards and perpetual spinach are almost pest and disease-free. Slugs and snails, of course, can be problematic, especially when the plants are young, but these are easily controlled in the usual ways. Rabbits like to graze the leaves at any stage of growth, but chards are not their favourite meal so damage is unlikely to be serious. Other than that, there are no other problems worth mentioning.
Chards are attractive in the garden, easy to grow and almost free of pests and diseases. They are also good for you and versatile in the kitchen. They are vegetables that just keep on giving.
© Michael Michaud