Annie Calovich

Swiss chard: a miracle in the garden?

I’m a note-taker. And not just because I’m a newspaper reporter. I usually write a fresh to-do list every morning, and, if I’m in the mood, I keep track of daily goals. (I’m usually not in the mood.)

I’ve found recently that I have to have white paper to write on. Steno green doesn’t do it, nor does legal-pad yellow. Recycled gray definitely won’t make the grade. If I’m to have the energy to attack the day, white it must be.

I’m sure it’s because my eyes are getting older, and I need sharp contrast.

I bring this up because I noticed the white-paper equivalent of a garden cookbook that landed on my desk last week. As I flipped through “Cooking Light Pick Fresh Cookbook” (Oxmoor House, $21.95), my eyes reacted the way they do to white paper, or to being in a grove of deep green. They were refreshed. And happy. And I wanted to keep flipping through. And to garden. And to cook with what I grew.

Another inspiration came recently from a gardener in Andover who left a teaser of a message on my phone about a vegetable that could be grown from early spring to frost and that could help alleviate hunger. Turns out she was talking about Swiss chard.

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“Swiss chard is something that people don’t seem to know about,” the gardener, Ruth Shisler, said. “It can be planted in the back of flower beds. It’s bright-colored green leaves with a long stalk similar to celery. You can use the leaves in salads.”

Swiss chard is a beautiful plant, and it doesn’t have to be just green. I grew the multi-colored Bright Lights the one year I planted Swiss chard, and Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman say that’s their favorite variety in their new “Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook” (Workman Publishing, $22.95).

Ruth raved about how the chard lasted from spring up until a hard frost. “You don’t have to plant it 21 times.” And how a $2 pack of seed would take care of four gardens. “It’s something poor people can have,” she said.

“I’m 92 years old. My father was a gardener. I always say I was born between the garden and the hen house.

“This is something people need to know about because it’s something they can do for themselves or give to other people. Spinach lasts a little while. Broccoli is hard to grow in this area.” Swiss chard, on the other hand, has the nickname of “perpetual spinach.”

Ruth’s praise of chard goes hand-in-hand with Plant a Row for the Hungry. It gears up when the produce starts coming fast and furious in the garden in the summer, and people want to give away their zucchini rather than throw it away. But its name reminds us that spring is the time to plant with the intention of donating to the needy. The Kansas Food Bank and the Sedgwick County master gardeners have a goal this summer of collecting at least 87,000 pounds of produce for those who can’t afford it. That would push the amount raised during the 13 years of the program to half a million pounds.

Ruth pointed to a recent story in the Healthy Living section of The Eagle that credited Swiss chard as being “filled with vitamins A, C and K, calcium, iron, lutein, potassium and zeaxanthin,” whatever that last thing is.

Ruth says that she cuts the leaves from the stalks and starts cooking the stalks first, throwing the leaves on top to wilt.

Swiss chard is almost as miraculous as sweet potatoes, but not quite, extension agent Rebecca McMahon said. (Did you know that sweet potato greens are edible?)

“They’re very productive, and they don’t take a lot of work,” Rebecca said of Swiss chard plants. Young leaves can be picked for salads, and then they grow back for picking again and again. If you let the leaves alone for a few weeks, they’ll grow to 15 to 18 inches, becoming a cooking green. You can then pick enough for a recipe every week or two through the summer, Rebecca said, and they’ll keep growing back. They don’t mind the heat; the only snag they may hit is disease in August.

“Sometimes the leaves will die back and the crowns will stay alive.” Swiss chard also is a biennial; if you don’t pull it, it will come back the following spring but go to seed pretty quickly, Rebecca said.

She likes a recipe for Swiss chard and sweet potato gratin from the blog Smitten Kitchen ( Since the “Pick Fresh” cookbook was in front of me – and I couldn’t quit looking at it – I wanted to see what it had to say about Swiss chard. Fortunately, it offers a recipe that’s easy and that uses both the leaves and the stalks of the chard.

Even more fortunately, the recipe includes creme fraiche. That might seem too high-brow for our humble discussion, but throw in another delightful book I’ve been reading – “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” – and you find out you can make your own creme fraiche for cheap.

The Cooking Light cookbook loosely compares the Swiss chard with creme fraiche (see accompanying recipe) to creamed spinach. I would use any leftover creme fraiche over fresh or frozen berries. (The author of “Make the Bread” recommends using buttermilk left over from making the creme fraiche for pancakes.)

Gardeners can plant Swiss chard through April, and probably into May this year because of the cool weather. Ruth planted hers early in the month and wasn’t through extolling its virtues. “If you don’t eat the sides of it, pitch them in the garden and let them rot. They really do grow up to a hard frost. You can dig them and take them inside, and they’ll grow for a couple weeks.”

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