One Plant, Three Seasons: Beta vulgaris Cicla Group

Chard seeds Chard yellow seedling Chard Bright Lights selection 2 Aug 25 08

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’.

 Chard Bright Lights seedlings 3 16 09

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.

Midsummer

Chard Bright Lights Coreopsis Limerock Ruby Lettuce Merlot July 7 08

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.

Rhubarb chard Atriplex Golden Verbena Lanai Red II early July 05

More red-stemmed chards in early July in another multi-edible combination, above, with ‘Golden’ orach (Atriplex hortensis) and ‘Lanai Red’ verbena.

Chard Bright Lights Carex Toffee Twist July 30 08

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’).

Chard Bright Lights Zinnia Profusion Orange Cotinus Royal Purple July 30 08

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.

Chard Bright Lights Zinnia Profusion Orange Persicaria Taurus July 25 08

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.

Chard Bright Lights selection 2 in garden Aug 29 08

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.

Chard Bright Lights selection Aug 2 08

Chards can also take the place of cannas where canna foliage would be a little too big or too bold.

Ipomoea batatas Sweet Caroline Bronze Phormium Chard Kale Redbor Sept 9 05

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).

Pelargonium Black Velvet Scarlet Chard Tagetes Starfire Rudbeckia fulgida fulgida Atriplex mid August 05

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.

Chard Bright Lights yellow selection Oct 4 08

Here are the same yellow-stemmed chards shown above in “Midsummer.”

Chard Bright Lights selection 3 Oct 4 08

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.

Chard Bright Lights selection 4 Oct 4 08

In the lower-angled autumn sunlight, colorful chards glow beautifully when backlit.

Chard Bright Lights Pepper Black Pearl Sept 24 08

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.

Chard with frost Oct 22 06

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.

19 responses to this post.

  1. You know how to make a common veggie look like a designer plant! :-)

    I’ve not even tried chard as they resemble deer or rabbit food. That said, I may just given chard a try since I don’t fret over losing plants grown from seed. It will be an interesting test.

    Thanks for all the great photos and info!
    Cameron

    Oh yikes! I put the wrong date on this post – meant to save it until the end of the month! I’m glad you enjoyed it, anyway. You’re right about the chard probably being deer candy, but it’s worth a try.
    -Nan

  2. I started chard for just this reason but then my husband put it in the vegetable garden….it worked well there also and we do love to eat chard. Once again, you inspire!

    Sounds like you need to start extra this year, Layanee. I don’t think you can have too much chard!
    -Nan

  3. Posted by miss m on February 14, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Chard is simply amazing and definitely fits the bill as both a great vegetable and ornamental. Wonderful post !

    Kind of you to stop by, Miss M. Great to hear from a fellow chard fan.
    -Nan

  4. Those plants are full of coordinating colors and texture! I never ate Swiss chard until I started gardening a few years ago and grew some-I love it sauted with garlic and olive oil, as well as a substitution for spinach in an Indian snack/delicacy called saheena.

    Thanks for my lesson for today, Nicole! I had to Google “saheena”; it sounds yummy.
    -Nan

  5. I’ve grown chard for several years now, for its ornamental value. It’s such a hardy thing, as you say, usually being the last thing to succumb to the forces of winter.

    Nan, you’re a master at designing combinations of plants that inspire me to do the same in my own garden. Beautiful, just beautiful!

    Thanks so much, Kylee! I’m always finding inspiration in the blogging world, so I’m thrilled that I can return the favor.
    -Nan

  6. Gorgeous! And posts like these really make me wonder how anyone can think that a vegetable garden can’t be beautiful, too.

    One thing, though, Nan: I don’t know how you can resist picking all of these beauty from your garden. Swiss chard, sauteed in some olive oil with a little garlic? HEAVEN! (I’m drooling right now at the thought…)

    Oh, stop, stop – you’re killing me, Kim! That sounds soooo good. Well, only 5 months or so to wait for a harvest.
    -Nan

  7. Posted by Lisa at Greenbow on February 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Color, color, COLOR. I love it. I don’t care what form it takes. Beautiful, exciting color!!!

    Happy Valentines Day too.

    Glad you enjoyed the tour, Lisa. Happy Valentine’s Day to you too!
    -Nan

  8. Beautiful photos! Happy Valentine’s Day, Nan! :-)

    Happy Valentine’s Day to you too, Shady! I should have saved the red post for today, huh?
    -Nan

  9. Posted by Sylvia (England) on February 15, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Nan, I must get some seeds of Bright Lights this year – I say that every year but this year I will! Your pictures and garden are fantastic but you must work very hard with so many annuals.

    Thank you for being so inspirational. Sylvia (England)

    It’s not so much work, Sylvia; many of my annuals self-sow, so the main effort with them is weeding out the unwanted ones. I have that same work with many of the perennials!
    -Nan

  10. Wonderful post. Just wondering if your atriplex reseeds for you. I’ve been buying in seed every year, and I’d think here in zone 10 I wouldn’t have to. The atriplex never lasts through summer here either, just a spring bloomer. What lushness those veggies give your borders.

    Yes, it self-sows freely here, Denise. In my experience, the self-sown seeds germinate much more freely than those I try to start indoors, so maybe it’s too warm where you are? Sounds like it, since your plants finish so soon. Perhaps you could try saving the seeds from your plants and store them in your refrigerator for fall sowing?
    -Nan

  11. Oh thanks for this, Nan! I love the brightly colored chard, and they start so easily from seeds. I love that you can see the colors right from the start as well. We have just started Oriole Orange this week. We eat it too, but only out of guilt for growing a veggie and not eating it. We are thinking of the chard mingled with the dark foliage of Bishop’s Children Dahlias for a fall fiesta of color. :-)
    Frances

    Sounds wonderful, Frances! I’ll have to check out ‘Oriole Orange’; that’s a new one to me.
    -Nan

  12. Yes, I just found out the hard way that the seed was actually a fruit – I have way too many seedlings coming up right now! I love chard, both for the taste and the look in the garden. I really like how you’ve placed them here and there about the garden. Now I know what to do with all those seedlings I have! :-)

    I have to remind myself not to sow them thickly just for that reason. Fortunately, they don’t seem to mind being separated at transplanting time. Or, I snip out the ones with the paler stems. I think I’ll be growing a lot of chard this year – for eating as well as admiring!
    -Nan

  13. Nan, I love chard, it’s beautiful in the garden and beautiful on the plate….I plan on growing more of it, too. Thanks for the lift…the winter weather has almost depleted my spirit but this has been a great lift. gail

    Glad you enjoyed it, Gail. Don’t despair – spring will soon return!
    -Nan

  14. Wow, how fascinating. They really are beautiful. I never paid attention to them before because I didn’t think I’d want to eat them, but you have changed my mind. I’m going to look for seeds tomorrow! They’re gorgeous! Very interesting post.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, Fern. Good luck with the chard – you’ll love it!
    -Nan

  15. Posted by Paula Renee on February 17, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    My daughters are the gardeners, and one of them sent me this. As an artist, I really love the colors and the arrangements. I also enjoy eating chard, also kale and collards–all very good for us!

    I’m so glad you stopped by, Paula! It’s great to hear from yet another chard fan. Swiss chard: food for the body *and* food for the soul: who knew?
    -Nan

  16. Nan I just wanted to stop by and say how nice it was to see your input in the “Small Gardens” magazine I picked up a few days ago .. I think I will be searching for your perennial plant care book too now : ) Great job girl !
    Joy

    Thanks for letting me know, Joy. I don’t remember doing the interview; it must have been a while ago!
    -Nan

  17. Thanks for posting these wonderful pictures; I’ve got my Bright Lights and some other chard seeds for this year, but until I saw your pictures I was only planning on sticking them in a corner of the vegetable garden. Now I’m full of plots for squeezing these in all over the yard, they look so wonderful in your shots!! (And it’s so easy to grow too much, I guess I won’t feel bad if I don’t like the effect in some spots and pull them back up again to eat!)

    You’re right, Meghan; since they’re annuals, you can easily remove them if you don’t like them where they are. And since they’re edible, you can eat your mistakes!
    -Nan

  18. Wow! It’s one thing to talk about beautiful edible gardens and another to have such a multifaceted example put forth. The photos are gorgeous and show the effect through a long season.

    Thanks, Pat. I’m looking forward to trying a bunch of new chard combinations this coming year.
    -Nan

  19. Posted by ourfriendben on March 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    These are great combos, Nan! I love chard as an ornamental (can’t eat it, though; to me, it tastes muddy like beet greens, ugh). Thanks for articulating the chard/canna link; something has always tickled the back of my mind about chard’s ornamental quality, and that’s it exactly. And, oh, oh, congratulations many times for GWW’s listing on Horticulture’s Top 20 Garden Blogs!!!! WELL deserved!!!!!!

    Hey, thanks! I can understand your point about the chard, but at this point, *anything* fresh sounds good. Fortunately, I’ve got arugula and lettuce seeds sprouting this morning, so the prospect of harvesting greens is in sight.
    -Nan

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