The Practical Gardener

I was out in the greenhouse recently, watering and thinning salad greens. I was also kicking myself for my springtime dereliction of duty. I’d had a fine crop of greens going: kale, arugula, lettuce, spinach and turnip tops, all in the advanced-seedling stage. They had been growing like gangbusters under a second layer of floating row cover, as well as cloches I’d made out of old lampshades covered with the same season-extension fabric.

Note that I say “they had been.” On a lovely evening early last week, I was out there thinning. The temperatures were warm, and my mind must have wandered when I went in the house to do something. Anyway, I didn’t make it back out to cover things up again, and two nights later, the temperature dropped to 16 degrees. When I went out again on Sunday, I had to face frost-damaged seedlings that were none too happy about my lack of stewardship. The uncovered seedlings had that wilted look that said they would recover, albeit at the cost of slower growth. The ones that were under my cheapskate cloches, on the other hand, came through the cold weather looking none the worse for wear.

But this isn’t a lament for what I lost or compromised due to my momentary lapse of attention: It’s about what I didn’t lose.

I have a Swiss chard plant that’s been growing in one corner of the greenhouse through two winters now and is still going strong. It has big, gnarly stalks coming out of the ground, but it is darn happy where it sits. We’ve been picking greens off this monster since the fall of ’99. When bitter cold turns the leaves dark and slimy, I simply strip back to that ugly stalk, and new leaves sprout when the weather warms up.

Throughout its life, I’ve offered it periodic side-dressings of a nice 4-5-4 organic fertilizer or composted cow manure. And when it gets into a leafing-out period, this fair-sized plant produces a whale of a lot of edible biomass. The little bit of care I’ve given it has been paid back with countless dinners that included steamed chard. We have actually gone through periods when we were so sick of eating the crunchy stalks and somewhat tangy leaves that the greenery got thrown on the compost pile; this periodic pruning has kept the nice, tender leaves in full production.

What I noticed that recent Sunday was that this mother of a Swiss chard plant seemed none the worse for having endured a cold snap that brought normally hardy greens to their knees. Low maintenance, abundant food production, and winter hardiness; you have to love that in a garden plant.

Aristotle mentioned chard around 350 B.C., and it crops up in Chinese writings of the seventh and eighth centuries. In the mid-16th century, Matthiolus reported that the vegetable was common in Italian gardens. Swiss chard — actually a beet with an undeveloped root — is also related to other members of the Goosefoot family (or Chenopodiaceae, for the less colloquially inclined), such as spinach, quinoa, orach and lamb’s quarters. It’s more distantly related to the yuppie grain amaranth and its wild ancestor, pigweed. (Pigweed, my greatest nemesis at Jardin Fou, was selected and grown by ancient American gardeners for at least 1,000 years before corn was ever cultivated. But I digress.)

Swiss chard is not considered a perennial, though I’ve heard that individual plants, given the right conditions, will continue producing for up to five years. I had four other chard plants in the same bed as this one, all planted at the same time; they all died the first winter, but this one just kept growing.

Chard is a biannual, meaning it survives into the second year (assuming it doesn’t winterkill), sends out seeds, and then dies back. Some folks cut it back in the fall and let it winter over under a straw mulch. In the spring, the mulch is pulled back, the plants go to seed, and the seed scatters and (hopefully) comes up on its own. By planting another crop in the second year, it’s possible to establish a kind of de facto “perennial” volunteer crop out of each season’s naturally scattered seeds.

Swiss chard was always the sort of veggie I could take or leave. For years, I grew it because it was easy, and we ate it cooked in various ways that generally left me unimpressed. But because we’ve had plenty to experiment with, I’ve come to really enjoy it. About the only way we eat it now is steaming it for about four minutes in a big pot with about a half-inch of boiling water in the bottom, and then drizzling a nice, rich balsamic vinegar over the leaves and tossing them before the dish goes to the table. And I think the leftovers (which we have a lot of when the plant is in high production) taste even better cold the next day when I take them to work.

It’s a mystery to me what the heck this plant is doing still growing. It’s a good example of the endless diversity one can find within a given species. As I said, this sturdy individual made it through that first winter in our unheated greenhouse, but that’s about all the protection I gave it. It was producing leaves like crazy before it went to seed in the spring of 2001 and I cut back the flower stalks, hoping to keep the leaf production coming on. I’m really not sure what it was I did (or didn’t do) to keep this plant producing leaves. The fact of the matter is, it’s precisely the type of oddball individual plant that a gardener would choose for keeping seed. It exhibited the dynamic qualities that plant breeders look for. And if I don’t succumb to greed and once again try to forestall it when it tries to go to seed this spring, I’ll let it do so and we’ll have it on Lee Barnes’ seed-exchange table at next year’s Organic Growers School.

Meanwhile, I’ve developed a newfound respect for Swiss chard. It’s an unassuming workhorse of the garden that is easy to grow, doesn’t have a lot of disease problems, and remains tasty in the hot parts of the year as well as the colder portions. It’s a worthwhile plant to grow and should be considered as you formulate your plans for this year’s garden.

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