Despite its name, Swiss chard is not native to Switzerland – it takes its moniker from the fact that it was identified and categorized by a Swiss botanist. And indeed its name can cause further confusion, and it is known by many different ones. Today, it is often referred to as silverbeet, Roman kale or strawberry spinach, while in the past it has gone under such names as seakale and leaf beet. It is popular vegetables in Mediterranean countries and is particularly revered in the southern areas of France. Fortunately, its cultivation is not restricted to such locations, and its relative hardiness makes it a good option for permaculture plots in many different places. As a cruciferous vegetable, it benefits from exposure to a frost or two, so can make a good late season vegetable for your garden. In terms of nutrition, Swiss chard is a big-hitter, giving you high levels of dietary fiber alongside vitamins A, C and K. It is also a good source of trace elements such as magnesium and potassium, which play a role in ensuring the body’s physiological processes remain in good working order, and is also very low in calories. Furthermore, as it comes in a variety of colours, from green to purple, red and yellow, Swiss chard also provides aesthetic appeal to the permaculture plot.
There are a wide variety of Swiss chard cultivars that the permaculture gardener can choose from. Most will adapt to different climate conditions, but talk to local growers and garden associations to find out which varieties have worked well in the area. Popular red-stemmed varieties include Rhubarb, Ruby and Burgundy; white-stemmed options include Fordhook Giant, Lucullus and Geneva; while the Bright Lights cultivar is often a good place to start with growing Swiss chard as it is renowned for its ease of growth and has a variety of stem colours from orange and yellow to purple.
Swiss chard does not like it when temperatures get too high, so while it likes to receive a few hours a day of full sun in the spring, during the hot months of summer, it is best to give it some partial shade. This can be achieved by suitable species being planted nearby to provide shade, planting the chard in a suitable relation to a fence, building or other structure, or by using shade clothes staked over the plants when the temperatures are at their highest.
Swiss chard grows best in a soil with a pH close to neutral. The best way to ensure this is to add lots of organic compost to the soil before planting. Swiss chard also like to have access to a lot of nitrogen in the soil, to help with leaf formation, so amending the soil with some well-rotted manure or some blood and bone, will serve to give the plants a good start in life and promote strong, healthy growth. The vegetable likes soil to be moist but not waterlogged; lots of compost should give the ideal soil structure for Swiss chard growth.
It is most common to cultivate Swiss chard from seed. You can sow the seeds in early spring for a summer crop chard-163105_640(Swiss chard takes approximately 55 days to reach maturity and a harvestable size) or in early summer for harvesting in the fall. Indeed, Swiss chard is a good plant for succession planting, sowing new seeds every couple of weeks or so to ensure a consistent supply of the vegetable throughout the growing season. You just need to make sure that the temperature of the soil is 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above, so the seeds will germinate; a couple of weeks after the last frost of the season is usually a good yardstick. Plant the seeds at a depth of around 1 inch and around 2 inches from one another. As the plants grow and reach a height of two to three inches, you will want to thin them out so that you have plants that are about 6 inches apart. This gives the remaining plants enough room to grow into as they mature, and means that there are not too many specimens competing for soil moisture and nutrients. The plants you remove in the thinning process may be very young, but can still add flavor to a soup or salad. If you are planting Swiss chard in a guild, suitable companion species include beans, tomatoes, onions and any of the cabbage family, while cucumbers, corn and herbs should be avoided.
Water frequently enough to keep the soil moist. It is preferable to give the plants a soaking of 1 to 2 inches of water every week or so, particularly during the hotter, summer months. Avoid overhead watering, especially when the plants are young. Check regularly to see if the plants require more water. Dig down into the soil about 2 inches and test whether it is moist. If not, water and check again after a couple of days.
As long as they receive sufficient water, Swiss chard plants are relatively easy to grow, being robust and adaptable. It is a good idea to mulch the plants when they have been thinned to keep down weeds that would compete with them for nutrients, and to preserve the moisture that chard needs a good amount of. Straw, wood chips and leaves all make suitable mulches for Swiss chard.
You can harvest leaves from the plants anytime after they form, however, it is best to wait until the plants are 9 inches tall or more, to ensure quick and robust regrowth. Harvest leaves from the outside of the plant first, cutting off at the stem. Harvest all the leaves before the first frost. Young leaves can be used in salads as an alternative to spinach or lettuce. When the leaves are bigger, separate the stems and leaves, blanching the former for longer than the latter, so that they attain an edible texture. Use in stir-fries, soups and frittatas.