I would have to agree with those who say that chard is an easy-to-grow and a low-maintenance vegetable. Once it sprouts and establish itself, it doesn’t need much care to reach the size at which you can start harvesting it.
However, you can still do a few things to ensure it grows quickly and healthy. Here’s how:
Since one chard seed is actually a seedball which contains several seeds, you are almost guaranteed to get an overcrowded patch or row once seeds germinate and plants come out of the ground. Unfortunately, you can’t leave them like that. It limits their growth and can cause premature bolting. It also reduces air flow in between the plants, which can result in various diseases, including leaf miner infestation.
Thinning solves these problems. Simply cut them off at the ground level with scissors to avoid disturbing the roots of the nearby plants and that’s it.
You can start soon after the plants come out of the ground. I do it gradually. First to two inches (five centimeters) apart, then to five inches (12 centimeters) apart, and finally to about nine inches (22 centimeters) apart.
The best thing about it is you can actually use the thinnings as your very first (and early) harvest!
Consistent watering is the key to good-tasting chard leaves. Your plants need to have enough water available at all times. Otherwise, the leaves become tough and their taste turns bitter and harsh.
If you live in an area where it rains often (once or twice per week), you don’t have to worry much about this. The nature does all the work for you and you can simply forget about it. However, if you’re not that lucky (most of us aren’t), you need to pay more attention to it…
The watering is especially important while chard is still young and tender. Dry spells in this time can slow down it’s growth to a great extent. They may even kill it, if they last longer. Plants in this stage of growth should get water every three to four days.
However, by the time the plant matures, it’s main (tap) root grows so long it can source water from great depths. You can reduce (but not stop!) watering at this point to once per week without any serious consequences…
Summer is a different story though. The plants need watering every two days during those when temperatures are high. Otherwise, they quickly become bitter tasting, wilt and may even die off if left in a wilted state for more than a day.
It’s best to avoid overhead watering or do the watering in the morning, so the foliage can dry off completely before the night. Otherwise the risk of Cercospora leaf spot increases.
Here is why I always try to mulch my chard plants as much as possible:
- It keeps the soil cool and moist, which is especially helpful during hot and dry summer days.
- It slows down the weeds and thus gives chard more space and more nutrients for it’s own growth.
- It adds organic matter to the soil and thus provides additional plant food for chard.
You can see that mulching can help your chard grow faster and bigger. You’d be fool not to take advantage of it. It’s simple and you can use anything from straw, untreated grass clippings, wood chips, disease-free plant remains, well-aged compost and even chard’s own leaves!
Remove the weeds…
Young and tender chard barely competes with early-season weeds. These plants take away resources like nutrients, water and light from the vegetable. They can slow down it’s growth tremendously, unless you pull them out, of course…
Some of the weeds are quite hardy. You need to be persistent and do it every now and then. And even then, they can come back again even stronger. Luckily, the bigger the chard gets, the easier it copes with weeds.
While pulling out the unwanted plants, be careful not to disturb the baby chard’s roots. Instead of pulling them out, use scissors and cut them off at ground level instead of pulling them out. This goes especially if the weeds are too close to the vegetable. You can also apply mulch, once the surrounding are weed-free and once chard gets a little bit bigger. It really does help keep the weeds in check.
Other things you can do…
There is more you can do during the time of growth to ensure yourself a good harvest:
- Remove yellow and brown leaves. They start to rot with time and can cause diseases, if you leave them on the plant.
- Remove plants that bolt. Chard is a biennial plant and sets seeds in it’s second growing season. However, too much stress (heat, freezing temperatures or water shortage), can force it to bolt much sooner. You should remove all the plants that develop flowering stalk in the first growing season. Their taste is too bitter to be eaten, but you can use them as a mulch or throw them on your composting pile.
- Transplant the overcrowded rows and patches. Chard rows and patches easily get overcrowded as the plants get bigger and bigger. Thinning is therefore a must. Instead of eating the thinnings, you can also transplant them to other spots of the garden where they have more space.
- Fertilize if necessary. If you didn’t incorporate enough organic matter into the soil before the season started, you may want to side dress or mulch your rows and patches with well aged compost, mixture of leaves and non-treated grass clippins or coffee grinds for instance. Or, if that’s not available to you, you can also buy liquid organic fertilizer and use that instead.
- Create protection for summer heat. Chard is tolerant to heat, but extremely high temperatures can put this vegetable under a lot of stress. Such weather slows down it’s growth speed, ruins it’s taste, causes bolting and may even kill it off. Shade can help prevent this, especially in the afternoon. One way to create shading is to plant bigger plants (such as tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and sunflowers) nearby.