Claire’s Wee 18th Century Garden: Swiss Chard


pinkJefferson’s White Beet

Contrary to popular belief, especially in the United States, chard did not originate with the Swiss.  Technically, “chards” are blanched artichoke leaves similar to cardoons, and, not surprisingly, chard is a corruption of the French word for cardoon.. so chard means different things in different countries.  In the United States  Swiss chard is actually a form of beet, which in Great Britain would be called a kale or spinach beet.  In short the vegetable we know as Swiss Chard is not an artichoke but a beet grown for thousands of years for its leafy greens, not its woody root.

Ancient Greeks and Romans grew both red and white varieties of table beets as well as a Sicilian beet called sicula which is what we know today as chard. Archeologists digging at several Roman military sites across Europe and the Alps have discovered quantities of beet seeds, although we can’t distinguish between what we’d consider a true common beet and the chard. Likewise, the first European written record referencing beets surviving today, which dates from the Middle Ages (812 AD),  part of a royal estate’s garden inventory near Versailles, is also ambiguous as to what type of beet they meant, the word used was “beta” which could be a beet, but could also have referred to chard.

Various types of chard or sea kale beet, including the white stemmed Swiss chard, the red Chilean Beet, and Golden Chard.Today beets are divided into four cultivated forms: the chards, turnip beets, sugar beets, and the common garden beet.  By the 18th century chards were grown as a separate category, and was a common kitchen garden vegetable everywhere, including Scotland and Europe.  Thomas Jefferson grew chard in his garden under the names “white beet” or “spinach beet” and used the tender young plants in salads, steamed the mature leaves, and used the center rib in stews, similar to the way we’d use celery today.

Unlike the efficient beet, chard plants are tall,  22-27 inches and extremely wide. They will produce large crops in a small space, and last all season, even well past the first frosts.  Fortunately, since they are so prolific, sheep, chickens, and rabbits all love chard and will happily eat any extra production.  The chard is a terrifically nutritious green which holds up well to steaming, stir frying, cooking into soups.. and freezing, if you don’t have hungry livestock and want to preserve your harvest.  Although it is safe to say most 18th century gardens did!

Heirloom chard makes a good alternative to spinach because it is easier to grow and better able to withstand higher/lower temperatures and droughts. Just make sure you’ve spaced the plants nicely apart so they can rise to their full glory.

Claire would have sown her chard directly into the soil, perhaps soaking it overnight to hasten germination.  Chard should be sown at around 1/2″ depth, thinly, in wide beds or very thinly in flower boxes. The plants will need thinning.  Small plants do well in salads, or wait until they are around 8″ tall and treat them like an early harvest, the leaves will be small and tender. Too acidic a soil will stunt growth, but almost nothing will slow chard down once it gets rocking and rolling.

Like beets chards are biennials.  This means they set seed every other year, but are not winter hardy.  To get seeds Claire would have had to dig up her best chard plants, pot them, and put them in a cool protected space for the winter.  In spring she’d replant them tightly together and let them do their thing.  Twelve chard plants will yield more than enough seed for yourself and several friends, but chard will cross pollinate with beets, and spinach for that matter, so colonial gardeners put the plants far, far, apart, or in separate garden plots.

This variety is Fordhook Giant Chard.  Enjoy your taste of Claire’s 18th century kitchen garden!

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