Frank Hyman
October 26, 2016

Can you name this vegetable from the following clues? It’s related to beets, but we don’t typically eat the root. The foliage can be used for salads, sandwiches, sautés and soups. The young leaves are best for fresh eating; the larger leaves and stalks for cooking. It thrives in hot and cold weather and lives two or three times as long as other greens before it bolts. It has a mild flavor but the stems grow in a variety of tangy colors—red, orange, yellow—as well as white.

We know this plant as Swiss chard, though it’s actually from Greece, not Switzerland. It’s not even commonly grown in Switzerland. Swiss botanist Karl Koch is said to have been the first to classify it, and it became associated with him for scholarly reasons, not culinary. The name “chard” is a French corruption of the word “cardoon,” which it was often compared to because both plants have thick, edible stalks, though a cardoon belongs to the sunflower family and is more closely related to artichokes.

Growing Chard

Like asparagus, another Mediterranean native, Swiss chard can tolerate salty soil, making it a great plant for coastal gardens. One of its best qualities is that it’s a biennial, meaning that it lives longer than annual greens, such as spinach, bok choy, lettuce and collards. In locations with a mild winter, if you plant chard at the end of summer or beginning of fall, it will provide you with delicious greens all through the coming winter, spring, summer and maybe even into the next fall before it bolts.

Swiss chard can also be planted from seeds or starts a few weeks before the last frost date in the spring. It may go through two summers if you keep its soil moist and cut out the flower stalk when it appears. In areas with harsh winters, cut it to the ground before a killing frost and cover it with mulch. There’s a good chance the plant’s roots and crown will survive and put out new growth in spring.

As with other vegetables, chard favors rich, organic soil with a pH between 6 and 7. It’s slow to germinate, so soak the seeds overnight in a bowl of water to speed up things. Because they’re larger than seeds of other greens, plant them about 1/2 inch deep. (Poke them into the ground to the depth of about half a finger joint.) Set seeds or plants about 12 inches apart, and apply organic mulch about 1 inch deep to keep moisture in the soil, to deter weeds and to keep rain-splashed dirt off the leaves.

Beautifying The Garden

In the garden, my wife sometimes puts an individual chard plant at the center of a bed of carrots or lettuce for visual impact. I also use chard in ornamental plantings; its big leaves contrast with finer, fernier ones. There’s no law against using chard in a perennial bed or a bed of annuals—it’s pretty enough—and always there for healthy snacking.

Time To Eat

Chard will produce more young leaves for salads if you keep harvesting the older leaves. If you’re not cooking them, your chickens or the red wigglers in your vermicompost bin will be glad to take them off your hands.


Next Up