Growing your own Swiss Chard
Swiss Chard or Spinach?
Swiss chard is probably one of the most cultivated and consumed vegetables in South Africa. We use it as Morogo, we make “spinach” pie, we stuff pancakes with “spinach” and creamed “spinach” is a standard side in most restaurants. Only, we incorrectly call it spinach, not Swiss Chard.
So what is the difference between the two?
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris) is a member of the beet family and in some parts of the world it is also referred to as Silver beet. The leaves of the chard plant grow in a cluster and are quite large, fan-like and crisp. The stems are white and broad while some varieties, like ‘Bright lights’ have very colourful red and yellow stems, making it a very ornamental and striking addition to the garden. Swiss chard is a very vigorous and strong grower and some varieties grow quite tall.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea), belongs to a different family altogether. It is also referred to as English spinach. The leaves are smaller and softer than those of Swiss chard and the stems are green and more tender, making it suitable to be eaten both raw and cooked. It is a smaller and less vigorous grower. Spinach is also far less heat tolerant than Swiss chard and is generally only planted from mid-autumn through winter and early spring. It has a shorter picking time than chard.
Growing Swiss Chard
Chard can be grown throughout the year, although it grows more prolifically during the cooler seasons of autumn and spring and growth will slow down during the very hot summer months.
Seeds can be sown in seed trays and be transplanted when big enough or they can successfully be sown in situ. Prepare the site, in a full sun position (at least 6 hours of sun), by digging in a generous layer of compost and an organic 2:3:2 fertiliser to the recommended ratio. It is important that the soil is well-drained and friable.
Sow the seeds 2cm deep and 10cm apart in rows that are 40cm wide. When big enough to be handled, the seedlings can be thinned out to 20cm apart. Plant the thinned out seedlings in pots or another bed or exchange them with a neighbor or friend for some other scrumptious veg.
Water your chard regularly and consistently for the best results. Spread a layer of mulch around the plants and keep them moist, but not waterlogged. Swiss chard has a tendency to ‘wilt’ in very hot weather, but this is usually just a defense mechanism and your plants should be upright and perky again in the late afternoon. If not, you have probably under watered them.
Swiss chard does not need a lot of fertilising. Apply an organic 6:3:4 fertiliser or a water-soluble seaweed concentrate if the leaves show any signs of malnutrition.
Check regularly for aphids, slugs and snails and take the necessary steps to control.
Harvesting Swiss Chard
For the best flavour, harvest your chard before the leaves become too big and tough; ideally about 30cm tall, depending on the variety you have sown. Of course the younger leaves can also be harvested and used fresh in salads, but don’t over-harvest these as you will compromise a follow-up crop. Harvest from the outside first and either carefully ‘tear’ the stalks off the plant or cut with a very sharp knife at the base of the stalk.
Companion Planting for Swiss Chard
Good companions: Tomatoes, onions and other members of the Allium family, all cabbages, beans, beetroot, radishes, lettuce, celery, strawberries and mint.
Bad companions: Potatoes, mealies, cucumbers and other members of the Cucurbit family.