Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Bright Lights, Rainbow, or 5-Colour Swiss Chard

Bright Lights Chard
We've been growing Bright Lights chard for a couple of years now, and are more and more impressed with it. I can hardly think of growing any other chard now.

Bright Lights is a selection of a group of chards also known as Rainbow, or 5-Colour chard. These are in fact not one variety but a combination of different chard seeds carefully selected for a wide variety of colours. The leaves are mostly a mid green, although some are bronze-green, and their stems range through white, pink, magenta, apricot, yellow, orange and cherry red. They really look beautiful in the garden, and not half bad on the plate either, as the colours hold up quite well in cooking.

I found this quote from John Gerard in 75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden by Jack E. Staub and Ellen Buchert:
"It grew with me in 1596 . . . which plant nature doth seeme to play and sport herselfe: for the seeds taken from the plant, which was altogether of one colour and sowne, doth bring forth plants of many and variable colours . . ." —John Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plantes, 1636
I was surprised; I had no idea that multi-coloured chards were that old. In 1888 it was listed in Vilmorin's famous vegetable seed catalogue. More recently, Thompson & Morgan offered seed for Rainbow chard between 1970 and 1989. At that point, the strain had deteriorated enough that they discontinued it, and it disappeared from North America.

However, Seed Saver's Exchange discovered that it had been maintained in Australia by The Digger's Club, and reintroduced it a few years back. Since then, it's become wildly popular, and with good reason.

The seeds sold as Bright Lights were selected out of Rainbow chard, but as far as I can see they are substantially the same thing. As I said, this is actually a blend of seeds from different coloured chards. Each colour must be grown in isolation in order to produce pure seed, and then the seeds are mixed and sold so that the gardener gets the full range of colours. Since chard is biennial, that presents yet another challenge to the would-be seed saver. I am not sure how well chard would winter over around here, although it might with good snow cover.

Chard as a vegetable, on the other hand, is about as easy to grow as it gets. Plant the seeds indoors 5 or 6 weeks before last frost to get an early start, or outside after last frost. They like light, rich soil, but are reasonably tolerant of heavier soils, although if you are going to pick them heavily they should be fertilized with some well-composted manure. They prefer full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Within 60 days you should be able to start picking full-sized leaves, baby salad leaves even sooner. By careful selection of outside leaves you can still be picking chard at the end of the season. A light frost will improve them, but they are perfectly fine even in the heat of the summer. If you have planted more than can be eaten as it grows, it freezes very well. Chard is amazingly rich in vitamins, more tender and succulent than kale and much less finicky than spinach. What's not to like?!

Not too surprisingly, you are not the only one who wants to eat Swiss chard. If you grow it, you will need to protect it from rabbits, deer - and birds. Ours always develop big gaping holes at the tops of the tallest leaves. I was perplexed that the snails and slugs climbed up so high before starting to dine until I saw some goldfinches hanging onto the tops of the leaves, swaying madly as they pecked and tore at the leaves. In fact, I have had little trouble with slugs, snails or other invertebrate pests, and chard seems very free of diseases. But keep it fenced and possibly netted, or something will certainly eat it before you do.

The name chard, by the way, refers to another vegetable: cardoon. Now practically no-one growns genuine chard or cardoon, which is a close relative of artichokes. The appellation Swiss is to distinguish it from true cardoon, yet it is not particularly Swiss either. Like other beets it comes originally from the Mediteranean. Yes, chard is really a form of beet grown for the leaves, as the British term silverbeet suggests. Whatever you want to call it, it's a garden and kitchen staple and a visual and gustatory delight.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree! I love growing many different shapes and colors of vegetables (to me, the visual appeal is almost as important as any other part - I love pretty food!), and rainbow chard has been a staple in my garden for several years now. I live in northeast Ohio, and some actually did overwinter one year - I think it was well insulated by the snow - or maybe I just got lucky :)

luckiest1 said...

Thanks for a very informative post! I am having great success with my rainbow chard this year (first attempt!) and am now trying to use it in as many dishes as possible. Last night I had it in a fish curry. I love the colours!

Suzanne said...

Very interesting article! I'd been wondering what the relationship between Bright Lights and Rainbow Chard was, and why it was called "Swiss Chard" when I'd never heard of any other kind of Chard (and it's not Swiss). We always used to grow green chard, but last year I switched to Rainbow, and it's just gorgeous. Delicious, nutritious, versatile and super-easy to grow.