When the pretty and productive 1,000 square-foot White House kitchen garden was planted in the spring of 2009, beets were conspicuously absent from the plans and the word got out: the Obamas do not care for beets. But when Michelle Obama’s book about her famous front-yard garden, American Grown, was published in 2012, the cover picture was of the First Lady holding a basket of freshly harvested vegetables — and right in the middle of the basket were the quilted leaves and brightly colored stems of Swiss chard. Score one for beets, sneaking in the back door of the White House.
Swiss Chard is a heat- and cold-tolerant leafy green in the beet family. “Essentially, it is the same plant as the beet,” Barbara Damrosch says in her excellent Garden Primer. Technically, they are both Beta vulgaris, but beets have been hybridized and developed for their roots, and Swiss chard has been bred for the above-ground part of the plant, its magnificent leaves and stems.
Picky eaters who have yet to discover the charms of beets often find Swiss chard delightful. It is easy to grow from seed and produces a long-lasting crop: you can harvest tiny Swiss chard leaves for salads when they are only a few inches tall. Plants thinned to about 10 inches apart will produce dozens of 12- to 16-inch, heavily quilted green leaves with contrasting yellow, red, orange, or white ribs. They are more tender than collards or kale, and taste a lot like like spinach (and a little like beets).
Swiss chard can be planted in spring for a summer harvest, or in late summer or early fall for harvest into the winter months. White-ribbed ‘Fordhook Giant’ is the most cold-hardy variety; ‘Bright Lights’ and ‘Neon Lights’, both with fantastically colored stems (technically, petioles) are not as winter hardy but are reliably heat tolerant.
A ruffled row of Swiss chard sparkles like jewels in a vegetable garden. Chard is also an excellent crop for gardeners who like to find a place for vegetables among the flowers. Chard leaves make a frilly frame around a sunny flower bed, and they’re handsome in a window box or in a pot. Harvest by picking a few leaves from the outside of each plant — new leaves come up through the crown, and the plants will continue to send up delicious and beautiful leaves for months.