Vegetable gardening in the Sandhills is no walk in the park. Extreme heat, drought, and sandy soils mean gardeners in the Sandhills have it tougher growing fresh veggies than folks in other parts of the state. This year’s growing season started off late, with frequent rains, then in June it seemed the tap was turned off, with many parts of the county without rain for three or four weeks, while temperatures soared into the mid-90s. Spring-planted lettuce and spinach is long gone; tomatoes may be struggling with the lack of rain and scorching heat. It’s the end of June and some gardeners may be asking themselves: “What’s the point?”
Allow me to introduce you to Swiss chard. This member of the goosefoot (chenopodiaceae) family includes other well-known vegetables such as beets and spinach. In my garden, this stalwart green has been chugging along since it was transplanted back in April, barely blinking as the weather shifted from the balmy, rainy spring to the dry heat of June. While I’ve already cleaned out the other spring produce to make way for summer vegetables, my rainbow Swiss chard continues to hold its own, with brightly colored red, orange, yellow and white stems adding wonderful color to the garden. So far, I’ve cut several pounds of leafy greens off just 12 plants, and after each cutting the leaves come back as strong as ever. In the past, I’ve managed to carry plants all through the summer, though it can sometimes go to seed with hot weather (it is technically a biennial, going to seed the second year of growth after a cold period). Often, a second sowing is recommended for late summer for plants that will go through vigorously through fall and beyond (well-mulched plants are frost resistant, and can withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit).
Swiss chard is easy to grow. It can be transplanted (buy or grow your own) or direct-seeded in mid-spring. Seedlings will need to be thinned to about 1 inch to allow enough space for the ultimate size of this hefty, leafy plant. Soil should be well amended with organic matter, with an average garden pH (around 6.2-6.5). It can be harvested as baby leaves or mature leaves, which are still tender even when large. There are several varieties to choose from: “Bright Lights” (a rainbow type), which is the epitome of the “eat your colors” directive; rhubarb chard, which has all red stems with dark green leaves; peppermint, with pink- and white-striped stems, as well as yellow, orange and pure white varieties. Chard has been cultivated for hundreds of years, primarily the white-stemmed variety which is more productive and cold hardy than the colored-stemmed selections. With its upright growth habit, brightly colored, almost iridescent stems, and glossy green leaves, it’s a natural as an addition to an “edible landscape” or used as a component in an ornamental container.
As easy as Swiss chard is to grow, it’s a star in the kitchen. Stems are often removed for cooking, but I enjoy using them wherever I need a celery-like crunch, cut up in soups and salads. Colors fade from cooking. The flavor is mild and spinach-like, without the bitterness associated with some other leafy greens such as kale and arugula, even when it’s hot outside. It can be substituted for spinach in many recipes (I use it in homemade spanakopita, a Greek-inspired dish made with filo dough, garlic and feta cheese). One cup of greens provides 44 percent recommended dietary allowance of vitamin A, 18 percent of vitamin C, and 7 percent of magnesium. One caveat: chard leaves contain oxalic acid, which can be problematic for those with a history of kidney stones.
If you missed planting Swiss chard this spring, plan on adding this easy, attractive vegetable to your garden or ornamental container on your porch or patio this fall. Your garden — and your kitchen — will be glad you did!
Paige Burns is assistant horticulture agent at the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Richmond County Center.