It seems wherever I go I’m seeing Swiss chard. This showy cool season plant sometimes called a beet without a bottom is showing up in the landscape, in mixed containers and there it is available in the local grocery store. Is it an ornamental or an edible you might ask and the answer is, both. Then you might wonder do you eat it fresh or do you cook it and again the answer would be both.
It has been almost 20 years since the All American Selections Bright Lights showed up on the scene. There was nothing to not love about this plant that had multicolored-stems that were so ornamental looking yet provided that glorious glossy foliage that became a substitute for fresh spinach. Swiss chard is known botanically as Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris showing it is indeed a leafy beet.
But holy cow now you look at a catalog and you'll see Bright Lights there but also single colors like Oriole, El Dorado, Magenta Sunset, Ruby Red and the bi-colored Peppermint. They can also be found at your grocer. You will probably have 3 to 4 varieties to choose from for your culinary artistry in the kitchen.
Swiss chard is ready to harvest baby green within 30 days or a mature harvest in 60. Cut or break off the outer leaves when they are 12 to 18 inches tall. You may cut them when they are smaller and more tender. Like many plants, it seems production is lengthened by harvesting. The stalks can be cooked like asparagus. Cut the stems into 2- or 3-inch lengths and simmer in boiling salted water until tender. The leaves can be cooked or eaten fresh in tossed salads. Or you may simply want the texture and color in the landscape or designer styled container.
You can use it as a fall crop or spring crop. Actually with its heat tolerance it has become a year-round crop in some areas just growing in succession type plantings. Space plants about 6-inches apart. Obviously, in the garden, this would usually mean rows 18 to 30 inches apart. But I think the flowerbed is the real location of choice. Here you would still use the same 6-inch spacing but this time plant in large informal drifts where you might plant a couple of flats.
Another good way to use Bright Lights or your favorite variety in the landscape would be as a pocket planting of 7 to 9 clustered behind pansies or use as three in the center of a large mixed container. Feed with a dilute water-soluble fertilizer every couple of weeks during the growing season. Here is hoping you have a little Swiss chard for your holiday dinners, but when the garden centers open back up and start bringing in fresh transplants, give them a try in your garden.