Today, let’s talk about chard (or Swiss chard), a highly appreciated vegetable and one of the most common leafy greens in home gardens. Its success particularly stems from its ease of cultivation and nutritional qualities. Not to mention the myriad of uses this plant can have in the kitchen.
In this article, we’ll explore the main chard varieties suitable for home gardens, the best planting season, and the necessary organic cultivation practices, especially concerning fertilization and pest control.
Main Chard Varieties for Home Gardens
Chard is an herbaceous plant of Mediterranean origin belonging to the Chenopodiaceae family. The scientific name of the botanical variety we’ll discuss here is Beta vulgaris var. cycla. Two major species of this variety are widely cultivated in our country, both in large-scale production and home gardens. These species differ mainly in the morphological appearance of the plant and are:
- Ribbed Chard
- Leaf beet
Ribbed Chard is easily recognizable at first glance. It is characterized by wide and fleshy leaves, formed by thick stems (petioles) and an intense green leaf blade with wide white veins. The surface is bumpy.
The stems in this variety are very thick, even up to 1 cm, and can reach a length of up to 20 cm. They have a fleshy texture and are bright white in color.
The leaves and stems are compactly arranged in a rosette with a wide base, from which a long, fibrous root branches out.
On the other hand, Leaf beet is characterized by a predominance of the leaf blade. The petiole is long and narrow, and the rosette containing the leaves is more jagged compared to ribbed chard. In addition, the leaves are smoother and delicate compared to ribbed chard.
The choice of variety will depend mainly on your preferences and the culinary preparations you have in mind. There are few differences regarding cultivation, and both species are consumed entirely, including the thick stems, which are very flavorful.
Chard is a biennial herbaceous plant. If left to grow for a long period, the flowering stem elongates, and the plant produces seeds. However, this practice is not common, primarily because it is challenging to find local varieties worth preserving their seeds. Currently, commercial varieties mostly result from successive hybridizations that have standardized production and limited local biodiversity. In addition, keeping a plant that takes up space and has exhausted its food function for an extended period may not be convenient in a small garden. With flowering, the stem hardens, and the leaves remain small and limited in number.
Nutritional Properties and Culinary Versatility of Chard
Chard has become increasingly popular in the Italian diet in recent years. Some consider it a “superfood” due to its completeness as an aliment. This is both for its unique nutritional properties and its extreme versatility in cooking, making it an ideal ingredient for those following a vegetarian diet.
Let’s take a closer look at the nutritional properties of chard. The data provided refer to boiled chard, which is usually the base for further preparations. It is not typically consumed raw. The complete table of nutrients can be found here.
Nutritional Properties of Chard
Chard is a highly dietary food, containing only 17 kcal per 100 grams. However, it is a vegetable with a high energy value in the form of carbohydrates: 2.8 grams per 100 grams, mainly represented by soluble sugars that are easily assimilated by the body. It is an ingredient rich in proteins and fiber (1.3 grams and 1.2 grams per 100 grams, respectively), making it highly recommended for those who need to integrate these elements into their diet. Furthermore, chard is very low in fat.
The true nutritional treasure of this beet variety lies in its mineral content. It contains 196 mg of potassium, 29 mg of phosphorus, and 67 mg of calcium. It also contains 38 mg of magnesium and 10 mg of sodium, and in smaller amounts, it contains iron, copper, zinc, selenium, thiamine, and riboflavin. Additionally, chard is rich in vitamin A (retinol eq. µg) with 263 and vitamin C with 24 mg per 100 grams. Hence, it is a complete food with numerous beneficial properties for the body.
Health Benefits of Chard
Below are the health benefits of this vegetable:
- Elimination of toxins from the body
- Stimulation of liver and intestinal function
- Natural detoxifier
- Mineral supplement
- Natural restorative
- Assists digestion
Using Chard in the Kitchen
We have already mentioned the versatility of chard in the kitchen. In this regard, in our opinion, this vegetable surpasses similar options. Compared to spinach, for example (a plant belonging to the same family), chard is significantly more cost-effective and provides a better yield.
In the kitchen, this plant can be boiled and consumed as it is or used in salads with a squeeze of lemon.
It can be prepared with potatoes.
It serves as a base for casseroles and rustic pizzas.
It can be used in minestrone or to season rice. It can be consumed as a cutlet, with pasta, and in many other ways. Countless recipes and preparations for a versatile, nutritious, and delicious vegetable. Now let’s move on to the organic cultivation of chard.
Chard Cultivation, Climate, and Sowing Period
Chard is one of the ideal vegetables to grow in a home garden. Thanks to its simplicity, it is also a good choice for those who tend to a balcony garden. We believe this is true for two main reasons: it has a high yield per plant, and it is a four-season vegetable, meaning it can be grown practically all year round, even in open fields. The best periods for cultivation are the cool seasons of autumn and spring. However, considering that chard can withstand temperatures close to freezing, it can also be grown in winter. Keep in mind that with intense cold, vegetative growth may cease.
In summer, during periods of extreme heat, this cultivation is less common. Firstly, because the plants grow and harden too quickly. Secondly, during hot weather, people prefer to prepare other vegetables that are consumed fresh. Boiled vegetables are less popular during the heat.
Chard seeds can be sown directly in the soil or in a polystyrene seedbed. Germination usually takes about a week. Alternatively, you can create a seedbed using polystyrene.
If you choose to plant in a seedbed, you will have chard ready for transplantation within twenty days. If you opt for direct sowing, young seedlings will need to be thinned out, following the distances indicated in the next paragraph.
Plant Spacing and Watering
As mentioned, young chard seedlings need to be thinned out, ensuring the right distance between plants. Ideally, leave a space of 20 cm between each plant and 25 cm between rows. The same distances apply to transplanting the seedlings from the seedbed. In the photo below, you can see an example of correct plant spacing.
Maintaining a certain distance between chard plants is crucial for their proper development, especially for the variety with thick stems, as they can grow significantly in size and require adequate space.
In terms of water, this plant requires constant and continuous irrigation. Without sufficient water, the plants will suffer, and the leaves will become tough. This applies to both spring and summer sowings, as well as autumn sowings. During long dry periods, even in autumn, supplemental irrigation may be necessary.
Soil and Fertilization
Chard is a very hardy and resistant plant. However, it prefers soft, well-worked soil that allows for the development of its long taproot.
Regarding fertilization, it requires a good supply of organic matter. Therefore, it is advisable to cultivate it after a previously well-manured crop. If this is not possible, you can always fertilize with dry manure before sowing. A good product that fulfills this function can be found here.
Note – An important point regarding crop rotation: to avoid the accumulation of nitrites in the soil, it is recommended not to cultivate chard successively after spinach.
Weeding or Mulching for Chard
An essential task for caring for chard cultivation is weeding, which involves removing weeds. Weeds can deprive the plants of nutrients and space, weakening their development.
As an alternative to weeding, thorough mulching is recommended, using natural elements or biodegradable plastic mulch, as explained in previous articles.
Chard is usually ready for harvest after 30 days from transplantation (45 days from sowing).
Harvesting can be done in two main ways: either by harvesting the entire plant (usually done for large-scale production), or gradually, by picking the outer leaves – the larger ones of the rosette. By doing this, the plant will have the opportunity to produce new leaves. This second technique is recommended for home gardens, where there’s no need to produce large quantities for the market. Moreover, this way, the plant’s cycle is extended, and the yield is more satisfying.
Eventually, the productive cycle of chard will come to an end. New leaf growth will slow down, the flowering stem will elongate, producing flowers and seeds. At this point, if you are not interested in seed production, it will be necessary to remove the plant.
Biological Pest Control
Chard is susceptible to pest attacks. Let’s understand how to apply effective biological pest control.
During spring and summer, the main risk comes from black aphids. These parasites develop subtly inside the plant, causing serious damage. The damage can become considerable, especially since the aphids are hard to notice. We recommend using nettle and garlic macerates, which we have already discussed in previous articles, to combat these aphids.
Another troublesome insect is the leaf beetle (also known as chard flea beetle).
This tiny flea is capable of quickly moving from one plant to another and causes multiple holes in our vegetables. In natural agriculture, the leaf beetle can be countered by circumventing it. One technique is to apply a thick layer of mulch to prevent the insect from reaching the plant. Another strategy is to use trap plants that the beetle prefers to attack. Some trap plants include arugula or horseradish. These should be placed outside the plant field to attract the leaf beetle and protect the chard from its attacks.
Another pest affecting this variety of beet is the snail, for which we have dedicated an entire article on strategies for biological defense.
- University of North Carolina: “Swiss Chard” – This resource discusses the health benefits of Swiss chard, which helps regulate blood sugar, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and supports bone health.
- Michigan State University: “Another way to add color to your palette” – This resource discusses that Swiss chard contains phytonutrients which are plant chemicals that are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Harvard University: “Are anti-nutrients harmful? | The Nutrition Source” – This resource mentions that Swiss chard contains phytic acid, which can have health benefits due to its antioxidant properties.
- University of Minnesota: “Eat Yourself Healthy – Minnesota Landscape Arboretum” – This resource discusses that Swiss chard is among the powerhouse plants that deliver high vitamin content, micro-nutrients, fiber and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Northwestern University: “Kale sheds bum rap on kidney stones – Medill Reports Chicago” – This resource mentions that Swiss chard is a dark green leafy vegetable that is oxalate dense. These green foods, although with healthy benefits, should be consumed in moderation.