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Intrepid Urban Farmer: All Chard Up!

Looking back to January, you remember that being in the house all of the time really got old. Cabin fever really had its claws in you. Your thoughts turned to gardening, of course, and just when you were at your most vulnerable, you were inundated with a crushing amount of seed catalogues in the mailbox.  
 
It was time to plan the new years’s garden! It was easy to get overly ambitious and be swayed by every catalogue’s pitch and every glorious picture. The choices were overwhelming.  Which tomatoes? Which peppers? Which eggplant? Before you knew it, you had a list that a team of migrant workers couldn’t keep up with.
 
Of course you will be planting tomatoes, peppers, beans, garlic, etc... But let’s stop for just a moment RIGHT NOW as you are about to deal with the enormity of the task ahead of you… harvest. That big seed order that you managed to get in the ground is about to explode. Let’s think about this in a more realistic, personal way and take notes that will be put in a place that  you won’t forget this coming January.  
 
How much time will you have to cook and preserve? What kind of diet do you personally enjoy and feel is good for you?
 
I raise tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans, garlic, zucchini, and cucumbers among other things; I always have the time to deal with all of it, one way or another. But I always like to fine tune my choices. I feel that greens are very good for you and well, I just really LIKE them. I attribute this to an early devotion to my favorite cartoon character, Popeye. With spinach, Popeye saved the day and Olive Oyl’s honor was preserved again!  Though I don’t believe I had a clear picture of exactly what “honor” meant at the age of six.
 
What is a good way to incorporate greens into the overall garden plan?
 
I have raised spinach. It is an early season crop, as it can’t tolerate the heat and bright sun of mid-summer. It is very easy to grow, but, before you are ready for it to be over, it’s over.  And generally by that time I am very busy getting the rest of the garden going. 
 
What is a good substitution for spinach?  What ones will be able to last an entire season? New Zealand Spinach is a good choice. Not really a true spinach, it has the taste and culinary uses of regular spinach. The leaves are tender, slightly succulent in appearance, and grow on a short vining stem. In warmer climates, it is perennial. Wouldn’t that be great?! But, those of us here in zone 6 will have to be contented with annual plantings... (shoot! No rest for the wicked). This plant is very easy to grow and doesn’t suffer much at all from any diseases or insect attack.
 
I was happy with New Zealand Spinach, but it really was too much to deal with in conjunction with a full planting of Swiss Chard. I had greens coming out of my ears and it was overwhelming. 
 
This year, I planted only Swiss Chard. It really is my favorite green. I have a sentimental bias for it. It was my Grandfather’s favorite. He was an old school gardener of epic proportion. You can cook with it just as you would spinach, kale, or any other type of green. It’s only comparable drawback is that it isn’t that great eaten fresh in salads.  But, that’s about it.
 
Swiss Chard is easy to grow. You direct-seed it in spring after the last frost, usually right around Mother’s Day (let that be your rule of thumb). I have found that it is a good idea to cover the rows right after planting so that the birds don’t make a buffet out of it. Trust me, the little monsters will, if you don’t take precautions. I use a combination of a type of grid fencing folded into a long tent and then covered with a fiberglass window screen. You can buy this stuff at the hardware store. I prefer it to other garden fabrics. The screen lets in the sun and rain easily, and is infinitely durable. I also like the fact that it is easy to see through. It is important to monitor you garden’s progress, and the easier it is to do this, the better. Honestly, you really should check your plants at least once a day. Successful gardening takes dedication. It takes dedication and the willingness to fail… many times. I have done that… the failing, I mean… many times.  
 
Take heed and benefit from my past failures. I’m doing this for mankind. We don’t ALL have to suffer. But, honestly, a gardener (being an independent cuss, generally) always seems to have to find his/her own way, so carry on and learn from those mistakes!
 
When the chard starts to push against the tent, just remove it and let it grow. You can start harvesting when the outer leaves are of a size that looks right to you. There are several ways to harvest chard. I, personally, start trimming off the outer leaves when they are roughly a foot long in size. They will get very large and have stems the thickness of a stalk of celery, but usually I can’t wait that long. If you look closely down into the center of each plant, you will see little leaves starting to make their way.  This will continue for the rest of the season. Swiss chard gives a big payoff for the effort.
 
In the future, I plan on experimenting with kale and other greens.  It is the experimentation and tinkering with gardening that keeps me engaged.  I hope, however, that I will remember to refrain from planting every member of the greens family in one season.
 
Now, where am I going to hide these notes?
 
Ginger Dawson is The Intrepid Urban Farmer. Read her column every other Sunday at The River City News. Questions? Email: [email protected]
 
 
Photo: Swiss Chard "Bright Lights" variety by Ginger Dawson