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Chard

Cindy Murray's grandson, Jared, harvests a healthy specimen of Ruby Red Swiss chard grown in Flagstaff.

Rarely do I come across a garden vegetable with the virtues, vigor and versatility of Swiss chard.

This leafy vegetable, which is available in a dazzling assortment of colors like “Neon Lights,” belongs to the beet family. The Botanical Interests seed packet for Swiss chard suggests serving it sautéed, or added to soups, stews and casseroles. John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seed catalog sings the praises of Swiss chard in ricotta-based pasta fillings, custard-based frittatas and cheesy rice gratins. I chop or slice both the leaves and the stalks and steam, drain and season with salt and pepper and a dollop of butter. My family also fancies it in stir-fries, while a friend of mine relishes it in Italian wedding soup.

One remarkable attribute of Swiss chard is that it’s packed with nutrients. “The World’s Healthiest Foods,” a website run by the nonprofit George Mateljan Foundation puts Swiss chard near the top of its list of “total nutrient rankings,” with only spinach and broccoli surpassing it. One cup of chopped, cooked Swiss chard provides 636% daily recommended intake (DRI/DV) of vitamin K, 60% DRI/DV vitamin A, 42% DRI/DV vitamin C, and many of the B vitamins. Even more impressive is the assortment of minerals loaded into each serving, many of which are difficult to derive from other foods.

Swiss chard is rich in phytonutrients. These are plant-based compounds that are not essential for life, but that do help in maintaining bodily functions and preventing disease.

One subgroup, the flavonoids, have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Other phytonutrients include the betalain pigments, which provide the reds, purples, oranges and yellows present in the veins and stalks of several varieties of this vegetable. These pigments have been found to scavenge and destroy free radicals, which are chemicals that cause damage to our cells, proteins, and DNA. Other betalains in Swiss Chard inhibit cyclo-oxygenase (COX) and lipoxygenase (LOX), which are enzymes that may cause inflammation. Please note that Swiss Chard varieties with white stalks and green leaves have only trace amounts of these wonderful pigments.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) enticed my readers into cultivating their own Swiss Chard, here’s how to do it.

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Start by soaking the seeds in water for twelve to twenty-four hours before you put them in the ground. Soil temperature must be at least 40 degrees, and the area should receive full sun to partial shade. Place two seeds every eight inches in well-drained soil rich in organic matter at a depth of ½ inch. Rows should be eighteen inches apart. If your soil isn’t warm enough, you may start seeds indoors two to four weeks before your average last frost date.

Seedlings will emerge in five to ten days, but be sure to not allow a crust to form on the soil surface. Keep soil moist but not soggy. Because the Swiss Chard “seed” is in actuality a tiny dried fruit encasing several seeds, more than one plant may emerge from the same spot. So, you’ll have to thin by pinching crowded young plants at the soil surface. But here’s the good news: the thinned, raw plants are delightful in salads. Allow six to twelve inches of space between your remaining plants.

You may wish to mulch the plants when they’re about two inches tall to keep the roots moist and cool. Although Swiss Chard is relatively heat-tolerant when compared to other leafy vegetables, a severe heat spell may induce some of your plants to bolt (go to seed). If so, just cut off the flower stalk.

To harvest, cut off up to one-third of the outer leaves. The plant will continue to sprout new leaves from the center.

You won’t want a bit of this marvelous vegetable to go to waste, so rinse leftover raw leaves and stalks in cool water, dry, and refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to two weeks.

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Cindy Murray is a biologist, elementary tutor and Coconino Master Gardener. Gardening questions can be sent to CoconinoMasterGardeners@gmail.com or submitted to the Master Gardener Hotline: 928-773-6115.

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