Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
At the end of the growing season, my vegetable garden always looks a little tired. But not the bed with the Swiss chard in it! Thanks to the brightly colored stems, that part of my garden looks very festive.
What is Swiss Chard?
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. Vulgaris) is a biennial plant that is grown as an annual. It is related to beets but does not develop the tuberous root. Swiss chard is grown for its large leaves which are very nutritious. They are cool season plants that are usually grown for spring or fall harvest.
The plants have thick stems and large leaves. The original plants had green or white stems with green leaves, but newer cultivars have been developed that have stems that can be yellow, orange, pink or red with leaves that are green or reddish green. At maturity, the plants are up to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.
If left in the ground, in zone 6 or warmer, the plants will survive the winter and come back in the spring only to bolt very quickly. Most gardeners treat the plants as annuals but if you want to save the seed, allow them to overwinter, then bloom and set seed.
Is Swiss Chard From Switzerland?
Despite its name, Swiss chard is not native to Switzerland. It is native to the Mediterranean area. It is thought that the name “Swiss” came from the fact that the first botanist to describe it was Swiss. Swiss chard is used in traditional Swiss cuisine, however.
How to Grow Swiss Chard
Swiss chard is hardy through zone 6 with protection. It needs full sun and rich, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0 – 6.4. The plants do not need to be fertilized but if your plants are not growing well, you can apply a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 halfway through the growing season to give them a boost.
Consistent watering is key to successfully growing Swiss chard. Make sure that your plants are getting 1 – 1 ½ inches of water each week. A thick layer of mulch (2 – 3 inches) will help keep the soil moist and prevent weeds from growing. Weeds compete with your plants for light, water and nutrients.
How to Start Swiss Chard For a Spring Harvest
There are three ways to start your Swiss chard for spring planting. You can purchase seedlings from your local plant nursery in the very early spring. Plant them 12 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart.
You can sow seed directly into your garden 2 weeks before your last frost. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep and 12 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart. Germination should occur in 5 – 7 days. Like beets, Swiss chard seed comes in tiny packets of 2 – 3 seeds each. They are too small to separate, so sow the entire packet and thin after germination.
Swiss chard will grow if you don’t thin. The plants will be smaller so most gardeners thin the seedlings, keeping the biggest and strongest one in each bunch and eating the rest.
Always thin by cutting the seedlings that you want to remove using scissors rather than pulling them up. When you pull up the plants, you will be disturbing the roots of the plants that you want to keep, harming and possibly killing them.
You can also start seed indoors 3 – 4 weeks before your last frost. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep in containers filled with moist soil. Germination should occur in 5 – 7 days. Since you will have seeded the packets of seeds, you will need to thin your seedlings. Using scissors, remove the extra seedlings leaving the biggest, strongest seedlings. Cut the seedlings that you want to remove rather than pulling them up so that you don’t disturb the roots of the seedlings that you want to keep.
You can transplant your seedlings outdoors after your last frost. Plant them 12 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart.
How to Start Swiss Chard for a Fall Harvest
Your local plant nursery should have Swiss chard seedlings available in late summer for you to plant for a fall harvest. Plant them 12 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart.
You can also sow seed directly in your garden in late summer 10 weeks before your first frost date. Sow the seeds ½ inches deep and 12 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart. Germination should occur in 5 – 7 days.
Swiss chard seed comes in small packets containing 2 to 3 seeds. They are too small to separate, so just sow the entire packet. You will need to thin the seedlings after germination. Always do this by cutting them with scissors rather than by pulling them out of the ground. Pulling them up will disturb the roots of the seedling that you want to keep, injuring it or possibly killing it.
How to Harvest Swiss Chard
Swiss chard can be harvested in two ways. If you want to harvest by pulling up the entire plant, then you should make successive sowings of seed every ten days so that you will have a continuous supply of plants to harvest.
Most gardeners harvest their plants using the “cut & come again” method. You can begin harvesting leaves from your plants when they are 6 inches tall. Using a sharp knife, cut the outer leaves 1 ½ inches from the soil. Do not disturb the inner leaves where the growing tip is. By harvesting the older, outer leaves, this will force the plant to regrow what you have harvested.
For a spring crop, you can continue harvesting from your plants throughout the summer. For a fall harvest, you can continue harvesting your late summer planted chard until the first frost.
How to Store Swiss Chard
Freshly harvested Swiss chard does not last long. You can store it in perforated plastic bags in your refrigerator for about 2 weeks. You can also blanche it and freeze it for longer storage.
© 2020 Caren White
Caren White (author) on May 13, 2020:
They are so bright and cheery!
Imogen French from Southwest England on May 13, 2020:
Some good advice here. I've got some rainbow chard seedlings just coming up in my English garden - I love all the different colours!