If you live in a coastal area that gets plenty of rain - grow Swiss chard. This close relative to the beet is grown for its edible leaves. It's an ideal vegetable for the organic gardener as it resists most pests and diseases. Also called spinach beet, the leaves are a great spinach substitute, yet the plant is more robust and easier to grow than spinach. Chard will provide greens throughout summer when other heat-sensitive plants have become bitter and inedible. In mild-winter areas, Swiss chard will provide greens all winter long with only minimal protection.
Like beets, Swiss chard grows best in a rich, fertile soil with a pH of 6.5 - 7.5. This plant is a heavy feeder, so a side dressing of every four to six weeks will give you optimum results. Cultivate regularly to keep the soil free from weeds that will compete with the chard for nutrients.
Seeds can be sown outdoors in early spring to summer. Sow the seeds ½" - 1" deep, and 6" apart two to three weeks before the last expected frost in your area. Seeds are slow to germinate and may take up to two weeks to do so. When the seedlings are 6" high, thin them so the plants are 12 - 15 inches apart.
Begin to harvest the plants once the leaves are 8"-10" high - approximately 5 - 6 weeks after sowing. A spring planting will produce greens that extend through the heat of summer well into fall, and beyond.
As with beets, leaf minors may attack the chard leaves causing damage by tunneling between the leaves. Remove and destroy affected leaves at once to the infestation doesn't spread. In a year of heavy infestation, I've cut my chard back to a couple of inches - by the time the new growth produces leaves, the leaf minor problem is a thing of the past. An organic method of foiling this pest is to cover your crop with lightweight spun row covers.
Swiss Chard with its deep, crinkled leaves, and white or rhubarb-red stalks has always been a striking vegetable. Now, with the advent of "Bright Lights" chard, the fleshy stalks are available in shades of pink, yellow, orange, cream, and bi-colours. Get these plants out of the garden and into the flower border!
The nutritious leaves and stalks of Swiss chard are loaded with vitamin A, C, and contain Vitamin B, Calcium, Iron, and Phosphorus. Like most greens, chard is very low in calories.
Harvest the leaves while they are young and tender. Harvesting regularly will ensure a steady supply of greens. To harvest, remove the outer leaves without disturbing the inner ones. Cut the leaves at the base of the plant, or pull the leaves off by gently pulling downwards and twisting them off - this will avoid disturbing the plant's root system.
Young, tender leaves can be added to salads in place of lettuce - this makes a particularly good Greek salad - or substitute in spinach dishes. Mature leaves can be separated from the stalks, chopped, and steamed. Drain and serve with a salt, pepper, and toss with butter.
For real eye appeal, chop some of the festive "Bright Lights" stalks into a salad. Or fill the colourful stalks with cream cheese or peanut butter. Who knows - with a vegetable that looks this good, the kids may even want to eat their vegetables!