Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

Better Swiss Chard (page 2 of 3)

by Sydney Penner

Growing Swiss Chard

Chard is a forgiving plant. It won't fail if everything isn't just right. But for plants to thrive, they prefer the kind of soil most vegetables need: rich, slightly acidic (pH 6 to 7) loam. In gravelly or thin soil, mature stalks will be tough and stringy. If you're starting with poor soil, work in plenty of well-rotted compost before planting.

Sow seed outdoors a week or two before the last expected frost date in your area. Space seeds about 1 inch apart and 1/2 to 1 inch deep. As with beets, a Swiss chard seed is actually a dried fruit containing several seeds, so one seed can produce up to five seedlings. After germination, thin plants to one seedling every 4 inches, and thin again when they are about 6 inches tall to about 8 inches apart. Thinnings are delicious in salads or quickly sauteed.

Once plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, feed with a high-nitrogen organic fertilizer such as soybean, cottonseed, or alfalfa meal. Spread 10 pounds per 100 square feet, or about 1 pound per 10 feet of row, and cultivate it lightly into the soil. As an alternative fertilizer, use fish emulsion at rates recommended on the label. Apply fertilizer when soil is moist but not wet, and ideally just before rain or irrigation. Nitrogen is the key to producing good quantities of tender chard with luxuriant, dark green leaves. But don't overdo it. Too much nitrogen, and stems are less colorful.

My cool marine climate (USDA Hardiness Zone 6) is ideal for Swiss chard. Where summers are hotter and, more significantly, drier, plants may bolt prematurely. If you live where hot and dry summers are predictable, be sure to mulch plants by mid-June and irrigate often enough to keep soil evenly moist because it's not the heat that causes bolting, but water stress.

Swiss chard is relatively free of pests. Leaf miners are occasionally a problem. Prevent damage by covering young plants with a floating row cover in spring when leaf miner flies are most active. If these insects do damage plants, it affects only appearance, not yield.

Two fungal diseases sometimes occur. Cercospora leaf spot causes a large number of 1/2-inch, light tan to brown circular lesions with a distinct, dark brown to purplish halo. Fusarium wilt causes seedlings to wilt and shrivel and older plants to wilt and turn yellow. Neither of these is normally a serious problem. Rotating crops, improving drainage, and maintaining good moisture and fertility levels are usually enough to keep these diseases at bay.

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