By Dr. Mercola
There is little doubt that minimally processed vegetables are one of the best ways to improve your health. Ideally, they should be locally grown to ensure freshness, and organic to avoid pesticides, with a majority consumed raw.
A simple way of boosting your vegetable intake is to juice your veggies, and tender, young Swiss chard makes a tasty addition to your juice that boosts your vitamin intake.
Many equate vegetables with a few different leaves of lettuce or some tomatoes. However, there is a wide variety of vegetables available in different colors, tastes and textures that may help meet your nutrient requirements and satisfy your taste.
Swiss chard is one such vegetable that may not be as popular as tomatoes and peppers, but packs a punch of phytonutrients and a subtle nutty flavor.
Most vegetables are not calorie-dense, including the Swiss chard. Depending upon the age of the plant, it may be a tasty addition to your salad, can be cooked or added to your morning juice routine. And, like all vegetables, it's healthier when organically grown.
To have the ultimate control over the quality of the plant and eliminate chemical exposure, you may want to consider growing it at home. The plants are hardy, grow in warm or cool temperatures, and continue to regenerate after a first harvest.
Origin of Chard
Today, it is considered the queen of vegetables in Nice, France, and grows abundantly in the Rhone valley, since it is tolerant of the cold and can be harvested up to the first frost.
The vegetable goes by a number of different names in different countries around the world. In the U.S., the names include silverbeet, strawberry spinach, Sicilian beet, spinach beet and seakale beet.3 It is believed the vegetable originated in Sicily and didn't reach England and America until the 1830s.4
The variety of names makes tracing the history through several countries challenging. Originally the word "chard" was a corruption of the French word for cardoon, "carde."5 A cardoon is a high maintenance vegetable that looks like a large heart of celery and tastes a bit like an artichoke.6
In the U.S., the plant first enjoyed popularity in the Philadelphia area and continued to be a specialty item found only in the eastern U.S. through the 1850s. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the plant was distributed broadly in the U.S.7
It is difficult to identify Swiss chard in Italy as the two words referring to the vegetable are used interchangeably between Swiss chard and beet greens.8 Young leaves of the plant are often treated like spinach.
Once the leaves are cropped it may re-foliate for a second harvest during the growing season. Since the plant is full of nutrients, the leaves were often used as green manure in Canada during the late 1800s, and plowed back into the soil to add vigorous organic matter.
Health Benefits and Great Taste in One Plant
Swiss chard is packed with phytonutrients, easily recognized in the array of vibrant colors in the different varieties of the plant.
Phytonutrients have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in the human body that protect your health.9 There are more than 25,000 phytonutrients found in plants, including carotenoids, flavonoids and resveratrol.
Swiss chard is an excellent source of vitamins C, K and A.10 Your body uses vitamin C as an essential cofactor in many enzyme reactions and in the synthesis of collagen, important to your skin and underlying structural components, such as tendons and ligaments.
Studies have indicated a higher intake of vitamin C is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.11 Your body has a limited ability to store vitamin K, so including daily dietary sources is important.
It is an essential cofactor for blood coagulation (clotting), bone metabolism and preventing mineralization of blood vessels, or hardening of the arteries.12 Vitamin A is involved in regulating growth, in the specialization of all body cells, and in your immune system and vision.13
Swiss chard is a member of the chenopod family of vegetables, which includes spinach, beets and quinoa. These vegetables continue to demonstrate a number of unique health benefits to organs, such as your eyes.14
Large-scale human studies have not been undertaken on Swiss chard. However, based on the phytonutrients and vitamins found in it, they are a tasty way of improving your health.
Prepare and Plant Your Swiss Chard
A spring crop of Swiss chard should be planted in your garden two weeks prior to your last frost date, or the seeds can be started indoors approximately three weeks before the last frost, and set out only after the chance of frost has passed.
For a strong fall crop, start seeds approximately 10 weeks before the first anticipated frost and set out the seedlings four weeks after starting them.15
The soil should be well fertilized with a balanced, organic fertilizer, and in an area that drains well. This will help protect the plant from disease and pests that thrive on compromised plants. If you are planting outside, plant seeds half an inch deep and 3 inches apart. When setting out seedlings you started indoors, plant 12 inches apart.
Chard seed capsules may contain more than one seed. If they all germinate it can cause crowding and a poor crop. Instead of pulling plants that are too close together, cut them with cuticle scissors to protect the nearby plant's roots from being disturbed.
Keep the strongest sprout and cut the weaker sprouts at the soil line. Gradually thin your crop until the plants are 6 inches apart for smaller varieties and 12 inches apart for larger varieties.16
Water the plants evenly and often during dry spells. You may use mulch in the beds to retain moisture, but choose your mulch carefully as it may carry pests or disease. You can start harvesting when the plants are between 6 and 8 inches tall. If you allow them to grow more than 12 inches they begin to lose their flavor.17
Mother Earth News offers more tips to help you harvest a bountiful crop of Swiss chard this summer:18
✓ Weed control
Weed early and often as the young chard plants don't compete well with weeds and will quickly die out. As the plants grow taller they will do a reasonable job of shading out late-season weeds that need direct sun.
Be generous with your mulch to keep the soil moist and cool. The mulch also reduces the amount of soil that splashes on the leaves during rain and watering. Keep the plants watered as dry conditions tend to make the flavor of the vegetable harsh.
✓ Visual enjoyment
Chard is a colorful vegetable that improves the visual appeal of your vegetable garden. Consider trios of bright chard planted on mounds, or in highly visible areas of the garden. Contrast the thick chard leaves with fine-textured plants, such as dill, parsley or carrots
✓ Soak the seeds
Soak the seeds overnight before planting outside or starting indoors to encourage strong germination of your plants.
✓ Rejuvenate plants in late summer
Pull off old leaves and spread a bit of compost over the root area. Consider using a water soluble organic fertilizer to feed the plant. The plants often respond by making a strong comeback so you may harvest until a couple weeks after your first fall frost.
✓ Shade the plants
Although chard grows in full sun, it affects the flavor of the vegetable. When possible, use the shade from taller plants, such as corn, tomatoes or sunflowers, to filter the intense summer sun. Plant your chard to the north or east of taller plants to take advantage of the early afternoon shade.
In the early summer it's possible to twist the leaves away from the plant without doing permanent damage. However, later in the season, it's common for the plant to push out of the ground a little.
Twisting the leaves at this time may mean no further harvest from that plant, so it's best to cut them off with a sharp knife.
You Don't Need a Backyard
In this short video you'll discover that container gardens expand your ability to grow your own food, even when you live in an apartment or have a limited backyard. You can even have a garden on the deck of your boat. When container gardening, it's important to add organic liquid fertilizer every two weeks, set up the pots with 50 percent organic material and add lime to the soil to encourage vigorous growth.
Container gardens have several advantages over planting in the ground. You are able to fully control the soil your vegetables grow in, you can move the containers as the needs of the plants change through the seasons and you can elevate the containers to accommodate your own needs, if kneeling in the garden is not within your physical capabilities.
Since the surface of the container is small, you'll have less weeding and there's less likelihood your plants will be exposed to pests and disease. And, if you do have plants that are infected, they are more easily isolated from the others for treatment. Container gardens also mean your gardening tools are smaller and more easily manipulated. Some plants you may want to plant only in containers include those that are vigorous growers and invasive, such as mint and bamboo.
Plants that grow in containers can be elevated out of the way of hungry wildlife interested in eating the fruits of your labors. Growing Swiss chard in a container changes the number of plants you can plant in close proximity. If you frequently harvest the leaves, essentially thinning the pot, you can place six plants in one 5-gallon pot. If, however, you harvest infrequently, you'll want to plant no more than three to a container.
Treat Pests and Diseases Naturally
The more common pests that affect Swiss chard are aphids, slugs and leafminers. Slugs may be controlled using natural methods that don't affect your plants. Slugs are attracted to the scent of yeast, so setting a beer trap in close proximity may be effective when set up properly. However, as seen in the time lapse video above, some slugs are just after a drink before heading off.
Diatomaceous earth is a simple, effective treatment that requires a few applications throughout the season. The product is made from powdered, fossilized sea organisms that essentially cause a slug to dehydrate and die. However, it becomes less effective when wet. Natural predators to the slug are ground beetles, which may be introduced.19 Slugs are also repelled by yucca, lavender, sage and rosemary plants.
Aphids are small pests that may start slow but reproduce quickly and can easily destroy your garden if not contained.20 Using predator insects to stop an aphid invasion eliminates the need for chemicals and won't kill off beneficial insects. Ladybugs, green lacewings and hoverflies all have an appetite for aphids. You can purchase ladybugs and lacewing eggs at a garden store, but must attract hoverflies by planting aromatic garlic, catnip or oregano.
Onion and garlic also detract aphids. Planting mint, dill, clover or yarrow may also naturally attract lacewings.21 Remember that mint is a vigorous grower and invasive, so growing it in a pot is likely your best option. Leafminers are insects that burrow between leaf layers of a plant, producing tunnels and effectively destroying the leaf. Adults look like hunchbacked house flies and lay their eggs on the underside of leaves.22
When the larvae hatch, they burrow into the leaf, creating tunnels. Natural methods of control work best, as they don't harm other beneficial insects or add toxic chemicals to your food. Monitor the leaves of your plants closely. If you see tunnels, squeeze the leaf between your fingers to crush the larvae in the leaf. If done soon enough, the plant may survive a minor outbreak.
Using organic fertilizers and adequate watering creates strong healthy plants that can help deter infestation of pests. Weather proof yellow or blue sticky traps attract the flies so they can't lay eggs. Look for products that remain sticky when wet. Under infected plants, cover the soil with plastic mulch so the larvae don't reach the soil and pupate.
Tasty Ways to Incorporate Chard in Your Diet
Chard is actually two vegetables in one plant. The leaves can be used as you might spinach, while the stalks are often steamed or grilled like asparagus.23
Chop the stems and leaves together, sauté, and after squeezing out the excess water, use them in quiches, casseroles or alone as a side dish. The following juice recipe is courtesy of Claire Georgiou, an Australian naturopath who originally published it on Reboot with Joe.24
Pear Lemon Ginger Juice
- 6 Swiss chard leaves and stems
- 2 large pears
- 1 lemon
- 1-inch piece of ginger
- Wash the produce well
- Peel the lemon
- Add everything to your juicer
The original recipe for this roasted Swiss chard with feta is found on AllRecipes.com.25
Roasted Swiss Chard with Feta
- 1 bunch rainbow chard greens and stems, separated, washed and chopped
- 1 large onion chopped
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 ounces of feta cheese, broken into pieces
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a baking sheet with a healthy oil of choice (I prefer coconut oil as it withstands high temperatures without oxidizing)
- Toss the chard stems and onions in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste and spread out ingredients on the baking sheet
- Bake in a preheated oven until the stems have softened and the onions start to brown around the edges
- Toss in the chard leaves with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, more salt and pepper if you like, and scatter over the stem mixture. Sprinkle feta over the top and return to the oven
- Bake until the stems are tender and the leaves begin to crisp, approximately 20 minutes