Swiss chard is one of those leafy greens that is so gorgeous it strays into ornamental territory. I love planting “decorative” vegetables and herbs, like lemon thyme and mustard, in the empty spots of the garden where I usually plant annual flowers. With Swiss chard you get a nutritious leafy green, chock-full of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as antioxidants, that is also very ornamental in a garden or container. In this article, I’m going to share some advice on growing Swiss chard—wherever you choose to plant it!
The same species as a beet (another tasty leafy green), Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. Vulgaris) leaves can be eaten both raw and cooked. Trim fresh young, tender leaves for salads, use larger mature leaves as wraps, or chop it up for stir fries. I enjoy sautéing Swiss chard in a little olive oil and garlic, or I’ll flavor it with sesame oil, depending on which recipe I’m preparing. I make a LOT of stir fries, so I like to have a wide variety of healthy greens ready for snipping in my gardens. Swiss chard is a dependable option.
There are lots of wonderful varieties of Swiss chard. What makes the plants so ornamental are the stems and veins (or ribs). In some plants they are white, such as the enormous white stems of ‘Fordhook Giant’, others are a deep red-pink like beets. If you’re opting for even more visual interest, ‘Bright Lights’ will grow orange, yellow, and red veins and stems, as will other rainbow types, like ‘Celebration’, while ‘Peppermint’ stems look like candy and ‘Rhubarb’ chard looks like, well, rhubarb!
Prepare your garden for growing Swiss chard
Before sowing Swiss chard seeds, choose an area of the garden that gets full sun (a bit of partial shade throughout the day is okay) with rich, fertile soil that drains well. Amend the soil with organic matter in the fall or spring for spring planting. If you are succession planting in the summer after you’ve pulled other crops, have a couple of bags of compost ready to amend the soil. I’ll add a few inches of manure to my raised beds, as well as fall leaves, at the end of the growing season so that they’re ready for spring planting.
Growing Swiss chard from seed
I’ve started seeds indoors about four weeks or so before my last frost date, and transplanted them outside. Make sure you harden off your seedlings before you plant them.
You can direct sow Swiss chard seeds in the garden or a container about three weeks before your last frost date in the spring.
Some folks will soak their seeds about 24 hours before planting to help speed up the germination process.
Sow seeds about a half an inch deep (1 cm) and about four to six inches (10 to 15 cm) apart. Keep in mind that Swiss chard plants can get quite big, so leave space between rows (about 18 inches or 46 cm). If seedlings are too close together, you can thin them when they’re about two inches (5 cm) high with garden scissors. Toss those baby seedlings in a salad, rather than sending them to the compost pile.
If you are succession planting, Swiss chard can be planted in the late summer. Count forward by about 40 days until your first frost date in the fall.
Nurturing healthy plants
You can also purchase Swiss chard seedlings at the garden center. Space transplants about four to six inches (10 to 15 cm) apart.
Swiss chard is one of those crops you can plant in the cool weather of spring, which means it also thrives in the fall. It can even withstand a light frost. I’ve harvested Swiss chard from my raised beds well into October in my zone 6b Southern Ontario garden.
And in the summer, when some greens, like bok choy, spinach, and lettuces, bolt in the heat, Swiss chard will tolerate those hot temperatures. It’s a biennial, so it shouldn’t flower that first season. If you manage to overwinter your Swiss chard, expect it to bloom in the second year. The heat will simply slow down the plant’s growth.
While your soil should be well draining, the plants appreciate consistent moisture. Water Swiss chard regularly at the base of the plants to encourage healthy leaves. Use an organic mulch, like shredded straw, to keep weeds down and to conserve soil moisture. I don’t tend to fertilize my plants, but you can add organic liquid fertilizer once or twice during the summer (check package directions for quantities).
Swiss chard leaves aren’t plagued by pests like other vegetables can be. I’d say the most damage done to my plants has been by flea beetles. Aphids can also be a problem. Row cover added at the time of planting can help mitigate damage if it’s historically been a problem.
Harvesting Swiss chard
When Swiss chard starts to produce multiple leaves, you can begin to harvest. Your seed packet will share information, such as the size of full-grown leaves and the date to maturity.
Rather than cut down the entire plant, use the cut-and-come-again method of harvesting to ensure you’ll be continuously supplied with fresh chard leaves. New growth comes out of the center or crown of the plant, so when you harvest, you want to make sure you’re taking the outer leaves. Use a pair of sharp, clean garden scissors to remove the stalk near the base of the plant (about one inch or 2½ cm from the soil line). This way, inner leaves can form as the plant continues to produce new growth. Like many herbs, harvesting leaves will actually encourage new growth.
Rather than store your Swiss chard, it’s best to harvest and use it right away. As heat tolerant as it is, the leaves can wilt quickly after removing them from the plant. This means Swiss chard doesn’t really ship well, so it’s not a green you’ll often see at the grocery store or even farmers’ markets. If you want to enjoy this healthy green, it’s best to grow it yourself!
And as I mentioned, my plants have lasted me well into the fall. Keep harvesting as long as you can. Depending on where you live, you may even be able to overwinter plants. For me, a hard frost will usually finish them off for the season.
Growing other leafy greens
- How to plant red-veined sorrel
- Tips for harvesting spinach
- A thorough guide to growing lettuce
- Sowing New Zealand spinach seeds
- Salad garden growing tips
I soak my chard in my dish pan after picking. Gets off what little dirt they’ve accumulated and the leaves usually perk right up if they’ve wilted at all. Shake off the excess water and they’ll keep for up to a week or so in a plastic bag (reused, of course).