Swiss chard is one of the most ornamental vegetables you can grow in your garden. It has colorful, edible leaves that are highly nutritious and good for both fresh eating and cooking.
Swiss chard is also an easy green to grow. It tolerates heat much better than other salad plants like lettuce, arugula, and spinach. You can grow it in a garden bed or in containers to have it close to your kitchen.
Here’s everything you need to know about growing Swiss chard, plus how to care for and harvest from your plants.
The Story of Swiss Chard
You might think that Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) came from Switzerland, but that’s not the case. One theory is that a Swiss botanist was responsible for naming chard, but no one really knows for sure.
Swiss chard is often shortened to the more simple name of “chard.” It also has several other common names like silverbeet, seakale beet, spinach beet, and leaf beet.
As you may have guessed from its nicknames, chard is very closely related to beets. Some varieties look exactly like beet greens, but they don’t develop the swollen roots that beets do.
You’ll find Swiss chard in a rainbow of colors: red, yellow, white, pink, green, and orange. The stems of the plant are frequently colored as are the veins of the leaves.
Swiss chard is a close relative of beets, which you can see when you look at its very distinctive leaves. Easy to grow, chard is also very nutritious and can hold its own as an ornamental plant.
Swiss chard is technically a biennial, but it’s mostly grown as an annual crop in USDA hardiness zones 3-10.
Growing Swiss chard is an easy task as long as you give it the right conditions. It grows best in cool weather, but will continue to grow through hot weather, although its growth will slow considerably.
The leaves and stems of chard are both edible and packed full of vitamins A, C, and K as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. They are typically ready for harvest about 50-60 days after planting.
Of course, you can also just enjoy Swiss chard for its ornamental appeal. It works very well as part of an edible landscape and can hold its own with many flowering plants.
Best Swiss Chard Cultivars
When it comes to growing Swiss chard, you have lots of great varieties to choose from. Some grow huge leaves, some are better for harvesting baby leaves, and all have their own unique appearance.
Here’s a look at some of the top picks:
- ‘Bright Lights’– This is one of the best rainbow mixes of chard. You’ll get a mix of pink, purple, orange, yellow-gold, red, and white stems and green or bronze crinkled leaves. 28 days to baby leaves, 55 days to mature leaves.
There are a few different chard mixes that come in rainbow colors but ‘Bright Lights’ is one of the best. You can also plant individual colors like pink, red, orange, and yellow.
- ‘Fordhook Giant’– This cultivar has giant green leaves with white ribbing and white stems. The leaves maintain good flavor and texture even when large and grow on surprisingly compact plants. 25 days to baby leaves, 50 days to mature leaves.
- ‘Rhubarb’ or ‘Ruby Red’– These are both names for the same cultivar that has red stems reminiscent of rhubarb and dark green leaves. Leaves are less bitter than some other varieties and great in a salad mix. 32 days to baby leaves, 59 days to mature leaves.
- ‘Peppermint’– This variety has pink and white stems that remind you of peppermint candies. Leaves are dark green and plants have good disease resistance. 33 days to baby leaves, 60 days to mature leaves.
- ‘Barese’– This is a dwarf chard that looks similar to bak choi. It’s great for harvesting baby leaves and for growing in small spaces. 30 days to baby leaves, 45 days to full size plants.
- ‘Lucullus’– This is a popular cultivar with crumpled green leaves and white stems. Flavor is excellent and plants are very heat tolerant. 26 days to baby leaves, 52 days to mature leaves.
- ‘Oriole’– This chard has beautiful orange-gold stems and ribbing with deep green leaves. Makes a great ornamental edible plant. 30 days to baby leaves, 60 days to mature leaves.
- ‘Bright Yellow’– As the name suggests, this variety has bright yellow stems and veins that contrast with its dark green, glossy leaves. 28 days to baby leaves, 57 days to mature leaves.
Planting Information for Swiss Chard
When to Plant
Though most chard can tolerate heat, it’s still best to get your plants growing during cooler times of the year.
Chard is one of the few greens that can tolerate hot temperatures. You can expect its growth to slow during the summer months, but it will still continue to produce, especially if well watered.
You can start growing Swiss chard in the spring, about 2-3 weeks before your last average frost date. Or you can plant it for a fall harvest, about 40-50 days before your first average frost date in the fall.
Where to Plant
You can grow chard in partial shade, but it really prefers full sun. Aim for a location that gets at least 4-6 hours of sunlight each day.
Swiss chard will tolerate different types of soil but grows best in well-drained and rich soil.
You can add compost to your soil for both better drainage and more nutrients. Raised beds are also a great option if your soil doesn’t drain well. Be sure to improve clay soil before planting chard (especially if you have heavy clay), since it won’t do well with “wet feet.”
If you know that your soil is on the poor side, add a slow release balanced fertilizer to your garden area before planting.
Growing Swiss chard in containers is a good choice if you are short on space or want to keep it close at hand for an easy harvest.
Choose containers that are at least 12 inches deep. Wide containers will give you room for several plants in a row, and deeper containers will allow for bigger plants if you prefer to harvest larger leaves.
You can easily grow Swiss chard in containers, even small ones, although you’ll need to use large pots if you want your chard to make it to full size. Use a good quality potting soil and water before the soil dries out.
Any variety of chard can be grown in a pot, but for the best results you might want to choose a more compact cultivar.
Before planting, make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of your chosen containers. (If there aren’t, you may be able to drill your own depending on the material of the pot.)
Fill the pots with a good quality potting soil that drains well. Get the soil damp with some water before putting your plants or seeds in, and place the containers where they will get plenty of sunlight.
Keep in mind that you will need to water your containers more often than plants in the ground.
Growing Swiss Chard from Seed: How To + Tips
Whether you’re growing Swiss chard in the garden or in containers, the best way to start it is from seed. You can start seeds indoors or buy plants, but they don’t always transplant well, so it’s best to plant your seeds directly in the garden.
After you’ve selected a location and prepared your soil, plant your chard seeds ½-1 inch deep and 2-4 inches apart, making sure they are completely covered with soil.
Water the area where you planted seeds well, and watch for them to germinate in 5-7 days. Germination may be slower if you are planting in cold soil early in spring, but it should still happen in a few weeks.
Once your seedlings have sprouted and grown 3-4 inches tall, thin them to a spacing of 6-8 inches apart. Swiss chard can grow relatively close together but expect plants to be on the small side. If you want large plants (and leaves), thin plants to a spacing of 9-12 inches.
Here are a few more tips to make sure you have success with chard seeds:
- Both chard and beet seeds have a hard outer casing that encloses the inner seeds. Soak your Swiss chard seeds in water for 24 hours before planting them to improve germination.
- The chard seeds you see in the packet are actually clusters of 2-4 individual seeds. Don’t be surprised if you see more than one seedlings sprouting in a place where you planted only one “seed.” Once sprouts are a few inches tall, thin them out so that you keep the strongest looking one.
- The best way thin your beet seedlings is to snip off unwanted ones at the ground. This prevents the roots of the other seedlings from being disturbed, and you get the bonus of being able to eat the thinned chard as microgreens.
Caring for Swiss Chard Plants
Once you get your seedlings growing, Swiss chard is very easy to care for.
One of the biggest needs your plants will have is a consistent supply of water. Without enough water, the leaves will end up being tougher and more bitter. Provide supplemental water during dry spells at a rate of about 1 inch a week. Container grown chard may need watered everyday in hot, dry weather.
To keep the leaves tender and healthy, make sure you water your chard during dry spells. Avoid getting the leaves wet when you water to help prevent fungal pathogens from growing.
Mulching around your plants is a great way to keep down weeds and keep moisture in the soil for longer. Wait to mulch until temperatures get around 70°F, or you’ll just end up attracting slugs.
Swiss chard usually doesn’t need much fertilizer, but you can apply a side-dressing of compost midseason to give plants a boost. If your plants seem to be struggling, apply a balanced fertilizer halfway through the season.
Pests and Problems
Swiss chard usually doesn’t have serious insect or disease problems, but occasionally you may run into a few pests.
Flea beetles, aphids, and leaf miners will all chew on the leaves of your plants, but they don’t usually do fatal damage to healthy plants. Simply wash them off at harvest time or control severe infestations with an organic neem spray.
Slugs can be a major pest early in the season, especially when conditions are cool and damp. Surround seedlings with egg shells to protect them, or use slug traps.
Cercospora leaf spot is the most likely disease to affect chard. If you see brown spots appearing on the leaves of your plants, remove the affected leaves and pull out some plants to increase air circulation.
Rabbits may be cute, but they are a big pest of chard and other salad greens. Use fencing around your garden to keep them out, or plant something they’re allowed to eat far from your garden.
Deer and other hungry critters like rabbits and groundhogs are probably the biggest pests you’ll have to deal with. Use fencing or spray a natural deer repellent or rabbit repellent around your plants (you don’t really want to spray it on the leaves that you’ll be eating).
Harvesting Swiss Chard
When to Harvest
You can start harvesting from your plants as soon as they get about 6-8 inches tall. This is considered the baby leaf stage and is when chard will be at its most tender. Baby leaves are best for raw uses, including salad mixes.
Most Swiss chard varieties will be at the baby leaf stage 25-35 days after you sow seeds.
To harvest larger leaves, wait until plants have had about 55-60 days to grow. You can pick leaves at any size, but they usually have the best flavor and texture when they are 10 inches long or shorter.
The exception to this general rule is varieties that are meant to grow large- ‘Fordhook Giant’, for example. In this case, leaves are still good for eating at a foot long and longer.
How to Harvest
Harvesting frequently from your Swiss chard plants encourages them to keep producing more and more leaves.
For a colorful harvest, plant a few different varieties of chard and add in some other greens like kale and arugula. Pick leaves when they are still small to make a multi-colored baby salad mix.
You can harvest chard as a “cut-and-come-again” plant by picking the outer leaves and allowing the inner ones to keep growing. Either use your fingers to snap the leaves off where the stem is closest to the ground, or use a clean pair of garden clippers to snip them off.
When plants are still small, make sure you only harvest a few leaves from each plant so that they have plenty of energy to keep growing. Larger plants can be harvested by as much as ½.
Swiss chard can take a light frost, but you will want to harvest the rest of the leaves before a hard freeze comes through. You can also use row covers or a cold frame to extend the harvest season into early winter (longer if you live in a mild climate).
How to Store Swiss Chard
Fresh Swiss chard leaves can be rinsed after harvest and stored in perforated plastic bags. They will keep in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks but are best cooked and eaten soon after harvest.
You can also store chard in the freezer for 6 months to a year. Take the stems out first and either freeze the chard raw or blanch it first.
Of course, Swiss chard is best eaten right from your garden. Baby leaves are excellent in salads and used in raw recipes. Larger leaves can be sauteed or steamed like spinach. The stems can also be eaten and should be cooked separately from the leaves. You can even try pickling them.
Adding Swiss Chard to Your Garden
If you love the flavor of Swiss chard, it will be very rewarding to have it growing in your garden where you can pick it and eat it fresh.
You can also give your chard some companion plants to keep it company. Try creating a salad garden by planting it with other greens like spinach, kale, mustard greens, and arugula. Or interplant it with taller vegetables like onions or garlic.
You can even add some Swiss chard into your landscape where its bright colors will shine!