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Better Swiss Chard

by Sydney Penner

Among veteran gardeners, Swiss chard is well known as being easy to grow. Consequently, they tend to ignore it. On the other hand, beginners might assume that chard is as tricky as say, spinach, which can bolt easily in the heat. To both groups, I say look again.

Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris cicla), sometimes called stem chard because of its broad, flat stalks (as opposed to thin-stemmed leaf chard, also known as perpetual spinach), is a prolific cool-season vegetable that comes in a broad palette of colors and is packed with vitamins and minerals. It's the ideal vegetable for beginning gardeners. With good varieties, adequate soil fertility, and regular watering, you can harvest from late spring well into fall.

During more than 10 years of commercial growing experience, I've learned by trial and error the best ways to grow Swiss chard. Following are my tips for successful growing.

Best varieties of Swiss chard

It seems that many gardeners, including veterans, don't pay much attention to which variety they grow. That's a mistake. Some varieties perform much better than others. Most Swiss chard varieties are categorized as white or red, but you will also find a range of colors, including yellow, magenta, and striped. This refers to the stem or leaf stalk color, not the leaves.

Probably the best Swiss chard in overall quality is white-stemmed 'Monstruoso', with broad, tender stalks. 'Large White Ribbed' is more productive but not quite as tender. Both are less likely than red-stemmed varieties to bolt (go to seed) after cold snaps and in dry weather. Their weak spot is pests. Insect pests such as leaf miners seem to prefer their large, smooth, succulent leaves to those of red kinds (which tend to have a stronger taste, closer to that of beet greens) or kinds with thick, savoyed (heavily crinkled) leaves.

White-stemmed 'Fordhook Giant' is the standard in our market garden. Its long, thick stems are topped by savoyed leaves, and it never bolts. Incidentally, another benefit of savoyed leaves is that insect damage, such as holes chewed by earwigs, is not as noticeable.

For most gardeners, red chard presents more of a challenge. Reds are more prone to bolting than white varieties are, especially after repeated exposure to temperatures in the low 50s followed by extended dry periods. As well, these varieties tend to have thinner stems and many stalks that emerge muddy red, and they are not as productive as white varieties.

Among the red varieties, the European 'Charlotte' resists bolting better than the standard 'Rhubarb'. It's also more productive and has broader stems that are more consistently colored. In general, red varieties aren't quite on a par with the better white varieties in characteristics such as yield and resistance to bolting, but they're certainly getting closer.

Other notable varieties are 'Bright Yellow', a new yellow-stemmed variety, and 'Bright Lights', a 1998 All-America Selections winner--the first Swiss chard ever to win the award. With 'Bright Lights', you can enjoy a milder flavor and all the vibrant chard colors, including oranges, pinks, and purples, without having to plant different varieties.

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