The Swiss chard is up and growing in our yard, on its way to providing a summer-long supply of greens. For years we were content with the all-green variety but last year switched to the rhubarb chard simply because its red color looks more attractive in the garden. And if one can add a little gaiety to the vegetable garden without lowering production, why not.
Some folks contend that the green or white-stemmed variety is slightly more tasty, but we have not noticed this to be true.
What we do know for sure is that chard of either color is a mighty handy vegetable to have around. It adds substance and taste when served fresh in a tossed salad. It also can be cooked as one does spinach. My preference is to trim the soft leaf away from the central rib or stalk. Serve the leaf as a cooked green and the ribs whole and with a little melted butter, as one does asparagus.
Many gardening books suggest harvesting the larger outer leaves of chard as they develop, but I belong to the school that says the whole plant should be cut off between 1 and 2 inches above the ground.
When you need more chard, move on down the row and cut the next one or two plants. Meanwhile, your first scalped plant will quickly send up more new greens to await your eventual return. In other words, it's a great cut-and-come-again vegetable. Nutritionists also speak about chard in favorable terms.
So much for the above-ground assets of Swiss chard. It also does some important things for the soil because it is a deeprooted plant. According to the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, the roots "are able to penetrate 6 feet in a single season." These roots help aerate the subsoil because of their penetrating ability. It further means that they can absorb nutrients that have filtered deep into the soil and out of reach of most other greens.
All greens like a nitrogen-rich soil that contains plenty of organic matter. You can dig compost, well-rooted manure, straw, chopped leaves, or other organic wastes into the top 12 inches of soil.
In my own garden, where the roots of previous crops are left to decompose in the soil, I do little or no deep digging any more. Instead, I make a shallow furrow where the greens will go and fill it with compost. The seeds go directly into this compost. Use fine compost because if it is too coarse it tends to drain too easily and the young seedlings can dry out. On the other hand, mixing coarse compost with fine soil often remedies the situation.
Chard tolerates both cool and warm weather and is a fairly rapid grower. As a result, it can be planted from nearly spring clear through to midsummer. Plant chard seeds about one-quarter inch deep every 3 or 4 inches. Cover the seeds with burlap until they germinate, particularly if the weather is hot. When the seedlings are 3 inches high, thin the plants to between 6 and 8 inches apart. I thin with a pair of scissors so that the remaining plants are not disturbed. Eat the thinnings. When the plants are 6 to 8 inches high, begin harvesting.
Some folks find it helps to side-dress the chard periodically during the season (say once a month) with nitrogen. One of the best ways is to apply a dilute solution of fish emulsion.
Growing Swiss chard is a largely trouble-free endeavor with one exception. In many areas of the country it is attacked by the leaf miner. This little grub , the offspring of a yellow fly that is somewhat smaller than the common house fly, hatches from eggs laid under the leaf and tunnels its way into the leaf, literally mining it.
Dusting with rotenone or spraying with malathion helps, but a simple cage to keep out the fly works best of all.
Construct a framework of stiff fencing wire to cover the chard bed. Attach cheese cloth over the frame to exclude the fly. During the height of summer, the cheese cloth will provide the added advantage of keeping the chard somewhat cooler. In early fall, the frame can be eliminated as the leaf miner has ended its breeding cycle by then.