22 March 2009

GARDEN GATE: Back Yard Swiss chard

Yesterday, on the Vernal Equinox, I bought a 12-pack of Swiss chard, one of my favorite plants.

My mother—an Austrian immigrant—husbanded a vivacious garden, harvested and served vegetables other kids shunned: Brussels sprouts and broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. And we ate some vegetables other kids had never even heard of: kohlrabi and Swiss chard. Safe in the confines of our dining room, my five siblings and I were anomaly children who jockeyed for the last of the spinach or asparagus. No doubt, without knowing it, we savored the freshness of the vegetables, pulled out of the Iowa soil that Robert Frost once complimented as looking good enough to eat without first putting vegetables through it.

My parents, from time to time, enjoyed creamed vegetables, but not us kids. In fact, we were inclined to eat many of them raw: wedges of squeaky cabbage and plates of peeled and sliced cucumbers, crisp carrots cut into wavy sticks, crunchy green beans. Kohlrabi hearts.

Away from the family table, however--and surrounded by friends who ate the TV dinners that my mother scorned, canned or frozen peas instead of fresh raw pods, and Oreos instead of homemade strudels--kohlrabi could be the source of shame. I sometimes got the feeling my family’s sustenance was some sort of foreign peasant food: fried—red, not green—tomatoes and eggplant, mustard pickles, not to mention pickled Black Angus tongue and heart. But that’s another story.


I acquired a taste for Swiss chard. Something like artistic spinach, it’s the sort of food that would never translate if served slimy and tinged with a metallic flavor from a can. Fresh from the garden, though, the steamed greens smacked of the essence of good health itself.

As it turns out, Swiss chard is highly nutritious. In fact, the George Mateljan Foundation, which promotes nutritional information, includes chard on its list of the World’s Healthiest Foods. A cruciferous vegetable, it’s a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as iron. A form of beet—Mom grew those, too, and pickled them—chard is grown not for the root, but for the leaves and stalks. Washed and wrapped loosely in paper towels, then bagged, chard keeps well in the refrigerator for a few days.

While Swiss chard’s status as a side-dish was well established with me, I’d never considered the plant decorative until I visited the French-style kitchen garden at Denver Botanic Gardens on assignment a few years ago. My mother’s chard had a presentable appearance—pale silver stalks and crinkly, verdant leaves—but I’d never considered it a thing of beauty. This potager’s chard, however, benefited from complementary colors: ruby red veins lined the pine green foliage ruffled at the edges almost like a smaller, more elongated version of rhubarb. With luminous magenta stalks, the plant held enormous design appeal; and I relished the notion that I could have my plants and eat them, too.

So two springs ago, I purchased an innocent-looking 6-pack cell of ‘Bright Lights,’ a chard mix of greens with stalks of red, orange, magenta and taxicab yellow. I poked the bedding plants—about the size of my thumb, in a small window box—the first plants I put out for the season. Despite some late spring cold, the greens took root and took off.


Once they began crowding the window box, I transplanted the Swiss chard plants to a hot spot in my back yard. And I do mean hot—almost incendiary. During Denver’s drought a few years back, I gave up on grass and created a mini-garden in this microclimate. Where the turf had burned and turned to dirt, I formed a river stone circle about the circumference of a Hula-Hoop. In the center of the rock ring, I added a terra cotta pedestal topped with a verdigris sundial. Once, during a July heat wave, I leaned my thermometer against the ring of rocks, and the thermometer read 124 degrees Fahrenheit.

Around the sundial, the chard grew curiously well and mixed nicely with existing boxwoods and thymes. Once the frost danger passed last May, I put down a few one-gallon orange zinnias to keep company with the hot colors of the chard. The plants filled in the circle and made for a pleasing palette so attractive that the mini-garden resembled a sophisticated floral arrangement, something you might find on a table inside a grand lobby of an upscale hotel.
Chenopodiaceae, as Swiss chard is botanically known, probably originated not in Switzerland, but in the Mediterranean. Even if you are not well versed in the mysteries of vegetable husbandry, chard is an easy-to-grow biennial often treated as an annual. Along with full sun, plants require regular water--which was no problem since the sundial garden catches the regular sprinklings for the patch of lawn in my shoebox-sized back yard.


After a growth spurt precipitated by precipitation, the chard’s leaves had grown large and lush, and I cut enough for a meal. I washed and dried the greens, mesmerized by their exotically colored stalks—yolk yellow and clementine orange and a beefy red. I hauled out my mother’s hefty cast iron skillet, added some olive oil and some fresh minced garlic, then tossed the chard, sautéing until the stems were tender, seasoning them with a pinch of fleur de sel and a few twists of the red pepper grinder.

Cutting back the plants only served to encourage their growth. The Swiss chard came on strong. The leaves grew tall as the sundial, and I could barely keep up with them. Hail battered the large leaves, and when I chopped off the tattered ones, more foliage seemed to spring almost instantly into place. The plants yielded all summer and into fall and--unlike spinach--did not bolt to seed. Once I’d had my fill, I simply let the leaves grow unchecked, and before long they stood taller than the pedestal and began casting rippled shadows on the sundial.

Like all veggies, the plants worshipped the sun, yet at the end of the season, the Swiss chard’s delightful colors intensified in the cooler temperatures. Visitors to my garden stopped in their tracks upon seeing the rainbow greens. I sent several friends on their way with sacks of fresh chard. The more I cut them back, the more the plants thrived.

Those six plants grew on and on, not even daunted by the first couple of blizzards that paralyzed Denver last December. Finally, when week after week the snows piled higher and higher, even that hot spot in my yard was buried beneath the white stuff, and with it the colorful chard. I figured those greens deserved a long winter’s nap and was sure I had, at last, seen the last of the tender chard.

Denver endured one of the worst winters on record that year, including seven weeks in a row of snowstorms and with them blinding cold during December and January and into February. But after a few warmer February days whittled away at the drifts around the sundial, the Swiss chard in the back yard was revealed and was—to my utter surprise—incorrigibly growing, new orange and yellow shoots surfacing. Biennial indeed!

Whatever your climate, make room in your garden and on your dining room table for Swiss chard—eye candy good enough to eat.


  1. Your description is sooo tempting. I think I will be planting swiss chard this spring and can only hope to be as successful as you.

  2. Dear Aunt Anne,
    I do hope you will try the chard. I have some small plants in a big container on the back patio now. They're lovely plants. Let me know how they do for you!


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