As a garden vegetable, Beta vulgaris Cicla Group – more commonly known as Swiss chard – has to rank right down there with Brussels sprouts and lima beans on the popularity scale. I’m not knocking any of these, mind you; right now, I’d be grateful to enjoy any of them fresh-picked from the garden. But chard is one of those crops that often gets lumped into the generic “greens” category, and few catalogs carry more than two or three varieties. (I was floored to find 49 chard entries listed in the Cornell Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners database – who knew?) I can’t claim to be able tell any difference in their flavors, because I’m more interested in chard as an ornamental. And for my purposes, I need only one packet of one kind each year: ‘Bright Lights’.
I like to start the seeds indoors in mid- to late March, scattered over the surface of a 4-inch pot. The basic stem colors are evident as soon as the seeds germinate, and in another two weeks or so, the differences are even more noticeable. At this point, it’s easy to knock the entire group out of the pot for transplanting. I normally pick out some of the richest reds and yellows, and a few pinks too. The best finds are those with definitely orange stems. Sometimes I can tell the magentas apart from the reds now; if I can’t, I pot up extra reds to see if any turn more magenta a little later. I set out the individual plants in mid- to late May, and in a few weeks, they’re already making a nice show of color and form in the garden.
Above is a red chard with dark-leaved ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets and ‘Merlot’ lettuce, chartreuse ‘Tip Top Mahogany’ nasturtium, and rich pink ‘Limerock Ruby’ coreopsis in early July.
More red-stemmed chards in early July in another multi-edible combination, above, with ‘Golden’ orach (Atriplex hortensis) and ‘Lanai Red’ verbena.
Isn’t that color fantastic? That’s one of the great effects you can get from some orange-stemmed seedlings: the newer stems are definitely orange, but they turn neon pink as they age. The chard in the above combo is paired with ‘Toffee Twist’ sedge (Carex), ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), Limemound Japanese spirea (Spiraea ‘Monhub’), and Sundown coneflower (Echinacea ‘Evan Saul’).
Above is a late-July grouping of yellow-stemmed chards paired with ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias and ‘Royal Purple’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria). (Deeper yellows would have been even better.)
Below are some magenta-stemmed seedlings with ‘Taurus’ fleeceflower (Persicaria amplexicaulis) and more ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias. The chards are still a little short here (late July), but in another 2 to 3 weeks, they filled the space perfectly.
Late Summer to Early Fall
Color isn’t the only thing chards have to offer: they’re terrific for bold texture too. In my full-sun garden, they serve the same purpose that hostas do in shadier spots, creating much-needed contrast with tiny, ferny, and fine-grassy leaves.
Here’s a late-August shot of the orange-and-magenta chard shown a month earlier in the “Midsummer” section above. Below, a close-up shot of a different seedling with a similar color combination, just for thrills.
Chards can also take the place of cannas where canna foliage would be a little too big or too bold.
Above is a pink-stemmed chard with ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato vine, a phormium, and ‘Redbor’ kale. And below, an orange-stemmed chard behind a younger red-stemmed one, along with ‘Black Velvet Scarlet’ geranium (Pelargonium), red orach (Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’), ‘Zowie Yellow Flame’ zinnias, orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida), and ‘Starfire’ signet marigolds (Tagetes).
Mid- to Late Fall
Chard grows well in summer, but it’s really at its best in autumn: the growth is lush, and cooler temperatures bring out even richer colors.
Here are the same yellow-stemmed chards shown above in “Midsummer.”
As the season progresses, the leaves of some of the orange- to red-stemmed chards darken to bronzy green or even a deep purple-red. I love these dark ones, but so far, I haven’t figured out a way to tell at seedling stage which ones will stay green and which will darken; I just enjoy them either way.
In the lower-angled autumn sunlight, colorful chards glow beautifully when backlit.
Chards tolerate quite a bit of cold, so they can look great well into fall. In mild climates, they’ll even overwinter, flowering (not showily) and setting seed the following year. Here in southeastern PA, they usually don’t survive the winter (at least in my garden), but I can count on them through hard frosts, and even some freezes.
It’s easy to find seeds of ‘Bright Lights’ through most seed companies. If you don’t start seeds, see if you can find seedlings sold in cell packs. Each chard “seed” is actually a fruit that contains one or several seeds, so most cell packs contain quite a few seedlings, and that should give you plenty of colors to choose from.