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GARDENING

Leave It to Swiss Chard to Beet Rooty Relatives

September 06, 1997|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Though it's a close relative of beets, Swiss chard is grown not for its roots but for its colorful crispy stalks and tangy leaves. In addition to eating chard raw or cooked, many people use it as an accent plant in the garden and as a filler in fresh floral arrangements.

One of the easiest and most indestructible of garden plants to grow, chard does well in our cooler months and can be planted now through May, says Gary Hayakawa, general manager of Three Star Nursery in Fountain Valley, a wholesale-only grower that provides plants to a variety of Orange County nurseries.

Lettuce tends to bolt in warm weather, but chard rarely does. It can also be grown in our hot months, although it won't grow as lush.

Chard can be planted from seed, and plants can also sometimes be found in the nursery. Two common varieties are 'Fordhook Giant,' which has medium-green leaves and broad, pearl-white stalks and 'Rhubarb,' with its candy-apple red stalks and red-veined leaves. The latter is so striking it's often used as an edible accent plant. There is also Lucullus 'Light Green' with light green crumpled leaves.

Swiss chard can reach a foot tall in the garden but tastes best and is the most tender when harvested at 4 to 6 inches high.

For best results growing chard, keep the following tips in mind.

* Rather than planting seed in the ground, Swiss chard does best when sown in containers and transplanted to the garden at 3 or 4 inches high.

Sow seed half an inch deep in an all-purpose, porous seed-starting mix and set container in filtered light until the seedlings emerge, which should occur in 10 days to 2 1/2 weeks, depending on the weather. (The warmer the weather, the shorter the germination time.)

Keep the seeds moist but not soggy. Once seedlings emerge, gradually put the plants in full sun, then plant in their permanent home.

* Plant in full sun in an area where the chard will receive good air circulation, as they are susceptible to mildew.

* Give the plant regular, even watering, but don't let the soil get overly wet. Try not to splash water on the leaves.

* Chard is not a heavy feeder. Two to three weeks after transplanting, feed with an all-purpose, balanced organic vegetable food. Chard's biggest requirement is nitrogen, because it promotes leaf growth. After the first feeding, every two to three months use a liquid fertilizer high in nitrogen, such as fish emulsion.

* Because it doesn't have a deep root system, chard does well in containers. Plant one plant for each 5 gallons of container. Use a high-quality potting soil with added bagged or homemade compost and fertilize monthly.

* Chard is ready to harvest about four to five weeks after transplanting. To pick, tear off outer leaves near the base of the plant. New stalks grow from the plant's center. If you want to use the whole plant, cut it off at the base; new leaves will eventually sprout.

* When temperatures fluctuate, chard is sometimes attacked by aphids. Simply wash them off with a strong stream of water or use an insecticidal soap.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

September Planting Guide

Although it's hot and dry, it's time to begin planting fall and winter crops. Wait until the middle of the month to put in some of the more heat-sensitive plants. While the weather remains steamy, regular watering is critical. New seedlings and transplants may need watering twice a day.

Flowers / from seed or starter plants

African daisy

Alstroemeria

Alyssum

Bachelor's button

Bells of Ireland

Bromeliad

Calendula

Candytuft

Canterbury bell

Carnation

Chrysanthemum

Cyclamen

Delphinium

English daisy

Foxglove

Geranium

Godetia

Impatiens

Larkspur

Nasturtium

Pansy

Penstemon

Shasta daisy

Snapdragon

Stock

Sweet pea

Sweet violet

Sweet William

Vinca

Viola

Vegetables and herbs

Basil

Beet

Broccoli

Brussels sprout

Cabbage

Carrot

Caulflower

Celery

Chervil

Chives

Cilantro

Collards

Endive

Garlic

Kale

Kohlrabi

Leek

Lettuce

Mustard greens

Onion

Oregano

Oriental greens

Parsnip

Pea

Potato

Radish

Rutabaga

Spinach

Swiss chard

Rosemary

Thyme

Tomato (transplants)

Turnip

Bulbs

Bearded iris

Lily

Sparaxis

Watsonia

Researched by JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS / For The Times

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