Easy to grow and easy to cook, the lowly chard – while not perhaps the most exciting vegetable in the garden – is definitely one of the most reliable. There are not many green leaves which are available all year round, and in the depths of winter most of them are kale. Salad leaves of all kinds may be growing in a polytunnel, but salad only appeals from time to time during the winter months, whereas a helping of chard seems far more seasonal.
Oddly enough, many people are completely unaware of it. It doesn’t travel very well, so this is a possible reason. It droops soon after picking; previously thick and sturdy leaves become thin and insubstantial, and crisp stems become soft and floppy. Unless kept damp and cold immediately after picking, chard will soon be past its ‘best before’ date. For the home gardener this isn’t a problem as it can be ready to eat shortly after being picked, but for most shops it’s probably just too much trouble. The only place I ever see it is on the shelves of our local ‘health food’ shop, and even then it’s very rare – so there’s probably very little point in looking for it in your local supermarket!
Closely related to both beetroot and ‘perpetual spinach’ (also known as ‘leaf beet’), chard has two main types: ‘rainbow’, in which plants have white, yellow, orange or red stems, and the ‘Swiss’ variety which only develops white stems. Of the two, Swiss chard is more hardy and vigorous and the stems are often thicker and sturdier than those of their brighter cousins.
If chard is planted sooner than the end of May some of them are very likely to bolt in hotter weather. However, not all of them will bolt – and if you save seeds from the remainder, you can begin to select for a very bolt-resistant variety. It’s worth planting a few in February anyway, as the flavour of bolting the leaves doesn’t change, and these can be picked while you wait for the later plantings to catch up.The lumpy, odd-looking seeds are in fact seed clusters and sometimes produce several seedlings. Plant into 6cm pots, or similar, two or three to a pot about 1cm deep. Thin to the best using scissors, as if you pull them out it may damage the roots of those left behind. Chard will germinate in a wide range of temperatures, and a bright windowsill during February is ideal.
Don’t let the seedlings become root-bound as this makes them prone to bolting. Transplant to their final positions outside once the danger of frost is past, and water well.
Plant more in July for a winter harvest, but plan on growing these under cover in a greenhouse or polytunnel. While chard is somewhat hardy, plants grown outside will eventually be damaged by frost and killed in hard winters, whereas in the shelter of a polytunnel (and especially if under the additional protection of horticultural fleece) they will give you a continual supply of fresh leaves through the winter.
Early plantings will begin to produce ‘cooking’ leaves in June and continue through the entire summer. Those which don’t bolt will keep producing through the autumn and even right through the winter beyond so long as it’s in the shelter of a polytunnel.
Chard leaves can be picked at any time. Baby leaves are good in sandwiches or salads, larger leaves are best steamed. The stems are quite brittle, but it’s best to cut them rather than pulling the leaves off the plants.
Chop up the leaves and cut stems into sections between 1-2cms long, but keep the two separate. Stems take slightly longer to cook than leaves, and they should be started 5 minutes or so before the leaves are added. Chard is cooked by steaming rather than by boiling, so you need very little water – 1cm in a saucepan is plenty. Chard cooks down much like spinach and tastes quite similar.