The story

How to grow spinach and chard

Are you a spinach snob or have your tastes broadened to embrace the less refined but equally tasty and nutritious chard? They are of equal value in the kitchen garden, but while they are often categorised together and treated similarly in the kitchen, they are from completely different botanical families and originate from different parts of the world. Spinach, Spinacea oleracea, comes from Asia, and was first cultivated in ancient Persia, while chard, Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla, a relative of the beetroot, was first grown in the Mediterranean for its leaves by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and has been cultivated for at least 4,000 years. Perpetual spinach-confusingly a relative of chard and not spinach-can also be added to the equation, and it is useful to compare the merits of all three of these leafy greens in the vegetable garden and discover which is best for you.

Nothing can beat the taste of true spinach-that distinctive, concentrated tang that oozes goodness and virtuousness. Finding its way first into Italy from the East in the eighth century, it didn't reach northern Europe until nearly 500 years later. It was famously enjoyed by the Florence-born Catherine de' Medici, who popularised it in France when she became queen there in 1547, ordering it to be served up at every meal – it is for this reason that spinach-based dishes are labelled Florentine' today. The downside with spinach is that, as an annual, it has a tendency to run to seed quickly, especially in hot, dry weather. Because of this, it is best to think of spinach as a spring crop, and sow little and often between March and May, pausing for a break over the summer when conditions are dry, with perhaps a couple of additional sowings in September for an autumn harvest. It's best to grow swift growing varieties such as Missouri (www.chilternseeds.co.uk), which also has good resistance to bolting, or ‘Reddy', which has attractive red stems and midribs and is ideal for harvesting as a baby leaf crop.

If you are short of space or time, or garden on very dry or free-draining soil, I'd recommend bypassing spinach altogether and choosing chard or perpetual spinach instead, which, as biennials usually won't run to seed until the following spring, will ensure a constant supply of tasty leaves all through the summer, autumn and even into the winter. Chard is effortless to grow once it gets past the slightly sulky seedling stage, burgeoning quickly when it gets going to make sturdy, leafy plants that will quickly regenerate once you start picking from them. It's the one vegetable that remains a constant throughout the season, even with just a single sowing in spring, with eight or 10 plants providing more than enough leaves for a family of four. Like spinach, chard can be eaten raw in salads when the leaves are small and tender, but should be cooked when they get bigger, either by steaming or stir-frying. One of the best-tasting chards I have found is 'Golden Chard' from Real Seeds (www.realseeds.co.uk). It is tender and flavoursome, less coarse in texture than some chards, and grows prolifically with very little attention lavished on it; ‘Bright Yellow' is a similar variety grown at West Dean. With appearance in mind as well as taste, Vulcan’is a good red-stemmed variety that can look very decorative, while ‘Bright Lights' – with its almost artificial-looking pink, orange, white and red stems - is almost showy enough for the flower border. The term 'Swiss Chard' is often used and is misleading, as the plant has nothing to do with Switzerland. In the nineteenth century the name was used to distinguish chard from French spinach varieties.

Perpetual spinach - also known as leaf beet or spinach beet - is more like spinach in appearance than any of the chards, but a much lighter green. Its taste is debatably inferior to chard, but many prefer it for its smaller leaves and more authentically spinach-like texture, without the thick stems and midribs of chard. For beginners or anyone with limited time, it is invaluable, as it is trouble-free and reliable, providing, like chard, plentiful supplies of cut-and-come-again leaves over many months. There are few specific cultivars, but one known as 'Erbette' has particularly narrow, pale stalks and midribs, and a finer texture than the standard perpetual spinach.

Cultivation

How to grow spinach and chard

Spinach can be sown direct as soon as the soil is warm enough in March or April. Sow small amounts every few weeks until May, into well-prepared, nitrogen-rich and moisture-retentive soil, planting in drills 30cm apart, and thinning as the seedlings get bigger. Spinach is a thirsty crop, and from the moment you sow you must ensure that the plants never dry out. When they are mature, pick from them often, and keep watering if the weather is dry, otherwise they rocket skywards within a week or two of maturing.

Chard and perpetual spinach seeds are large and easy to handle, and can be spaced out evenly along a drill – known as 'station sowing – which lessens the need to thin. In the early stages, the seedlings will need light, regular watering to get them going and to ensure that growth isn't checked, but once the plants are established they will tolerate drought conditions much more readily than spinach. Like spinach, chard and perpetual spinach also need a rich, fertile soil - ideally follow on from last year's pea or bean crop, where the soil will be high in nitrogen. The only warning that comes with chard and perpetual spinach is to be wary about planting too much, as the plants are so prolific that it is easy to have a constant glut of the stuff, and your family will groan collectively as you serve it up yet again for supper. A single sowing in mid to late spring will suffice, with the possible addition of a late-summer sowing for a fresh crop of shiny new leaves in autumn.

Buy seed of spinach and chard from Nicky's Nursery (www.nickys-nursery.co.uk). See different cultivars of spinach and chard growing in the kitchen garden at West Dean, Sussex (www.westdean.org.uk)