Two cool-season crops that are a staple in my garden each year are Swiss chard and spinach. I use them in soups, casseroles and salads, and steamed with butter and lemon juice.
Both can be planted in early spring as soon as the ground can be worked, which should be any day now. As long as your soil is dry and crumbly, it’s ready to be prepared.
The best way to plant Swiss chard and spinach is directly in the garden. Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and spaced 2 inches apart. After they’ve sprouted, thin the seedlings 6 to 8 inches apart.
During the first month, I feed them with half-strength fish fertilizer every other week to encourage leafy growth.
Spinach and Swiss chard mature in 30 and 50 days, respectively. To harvest them, I prefer the “cut and come again” technique. That’s where you pick individual leaves rather than the whole plant. By doing this, they’ll continue to sprout new leaves, thus extending the harvest.
Spinach doesn’t particularly like hot weather; when it arrives, the plants stop producing new leaves and bolt to seed. Swiss chard is much more heat-tolerant and will produce leaves throughout the growing season.
The biggest problem I deal with when growing these crops is the leaf miner. The adult is a fly that lays eggs on the leaves. The maggots that hatch tunnel their way through the leaves and can quickly ruin a whole patch. Perhaps you’ve seen little squiggly lines going through the leaves, or a section of leaf that is clear rather than green; that is leaf miner damage.
The easiest and best solution to this problem is to cover the bed with floating row cover as soon as you plant the seeds. It will act as a physical barrier to the adult flies. Neither Swiss chard nor spinach need to be pollinated so it’s safe to leave the cover on for the entire season. Be sure to weight down the edges with rocks, bricks or lumber scraps so it doesn’t blow off during a windstorm.
My favorite chard varieties are Bright Lights, Silverado, Scarlet Charlotte and Rainbow Blend. Reliable spinach varieties include Bordeaux, with its pretty burgundy stems and veins, Tyee and Space.
You might be interested to hear that the Organic Seed Alliance has conducted trials to research the hardiness of different chard varieties. They found it’s linked to the plant’s leaf color. Those with green leaves were the hardiest; next came the golden varieties, then pink, magenta and red.
Both Swiss chard and spinach can be grown late in the summer and through the fall. If you’d like to do this, plant the seeds in early August. You’ll still want to cover the bed with floating row cover to keep out leaf miners. When we start getting a lot of frosts, cover the bed with a sheet of clear plastic or a cold frame to keep the plants going strong.
One thing I learned last year is that Swiss chard leaves freeze really well. All you have to do is rinse and shake the leaves dry, stack them up, put them into freezer bags and pop them in the freezer. It’s so easy and is an ideal way to use them year-round. Use a heavy knife to chop a frozen portion for soups or stir-fries.
Have you ever wondered why it’s called Swiss chard? It isn’t native to Switzerland, but ever since gaining its scientific name by a Swiss botanist in the 1800s, chard’s common name honors his homeland.