Chard, Beets and Spinach

Chard

Genus: Beta

Beets and Chard are usually biennial. In mild winter areas it is possible to obtain seed by planting in summer, and allowing the plants to over-winter; they will bolt to flower the following spring. In cold climates, the plants must be mulched or dug before the ground freezes hard and then stored to replant the following spring. Beet can be planted in the spring and will survive light frosts. Beet and chard are the same species. They easily cross and are wind pollinated.

Developing Beet varieties went in several different directions, those for the nutrient-rich greens or tops (silverbeet or chard), those for the roots that could be stored in root cellars or pickled for sustenance in more difficult times, the huge mangel beets for livestock and then selection for the extraction of sugars. What a vegetable!

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Chard

Hot pink from 5 Colour Chard

Hot pink from 5 Colour Chard

In the 1970's I was lucky enough to be able to order directly from Thompson and Morgan in England (before the U.S. retail address was available). They offered a very comprehensive selection of flower and vegetable seed varieties that were rarely seen in the U.S. (they still do). One mixture that caught my eye was a blend of chards with stems of yellow, orange, pink, salmon and red. I had grown the white ribbed, dark green crumpled leaf Fordhook, the light green or yellowish Lucullus and a variety called, Rhubarb Chard.

Since chard often overwinters and keeps their impressive leafy tops into the winter here on coastal Long Island, the Rhubarb Chard with their deep red stems especially is a delight to see in the garden when everything else is drab. The "greens", of course, can be harvested when very little else is available. T&M's Five Colour Silverbeet looked very impressive. It would be a great eye-catching addition to the garden and so I ordered a packet. I doubt if Thompson and Morgan developed the variety- they are primarily a retailer like most seed companies that sell to gardeners. But their sources are often British and you find many of the same British bred varieties also retailed by New Zealand and Australian seed companies. Five Colour Silverbeet became especially popular "down under" in parts of the British Commonwealth and after being dropped by Thompson and Morgan, continued to be available into the 1980's in New Zealand and Australia. I had successfully been wintering over and producing chard seed crops from the original five colour and later, purchased seed from a company called "Diggers". Long Island Seed marketed a "Genetically Diverse Chard Blend" from 1980 till 1994 and it always gave us pleasure to include the genetics of the "Five Colour Chards" in our mixtures.

The most vigorous of the "Five Colour Chards" was the hot pink selection above and a terrific orange stem variety. As I recall, we always had enough "hot pink" to add to our mixtures! The above is a scan from a kodachrome slide stamped 1981.

If you're interested in maintaining a color from Rainbow Chard (available through Seed Savers Exchange) go right ahead.  The Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, Iowa) encourage you to save seeds.

I'm aware that some separate colors of chard are now being patented.  The shame of it!  There are subtle variations in stem colors and leaf variations of Rainbow and Bright Lights and even in different production years because of a certain amount of crossing and selecting (intentional and otherwise). Kind of like the subtleties between Rhubarb Chard, Burpees Rhubarb Chard, Vulcan and Ruby Red Chard. One might claim one is better than the other but they are all red chards. Is one significantly better or different that it warrants patenting and how will a small producer of seed know that their not breaking infringing on a patent by selling the same color! Most of same colors in all chard (except greens) have a fairly recent parent in common.

But, all of a sudden mini greens have become big business and the Rainbow chards are showing up in high priced mescluns. My advice is, if you use large quantities of a particular rainbow chard- grow your own seed crop. It is only if you sell patented seed that you risk fines.

Leaf Beets (Chard)

Leaf Beets (Chard)

Beta Seed (Chard and Beet)

Beta Seed (Chard and Beet)

Saving seeds of Beets or Chard is less common among gardeners because it's a two year project. Only after a period of chilling and dormancy will the seed stalk appear since they are biennials. In harsh winter climates they have to be dug and stored just above freezing under high humidity conditions (root cellared). Some of our winters are mild enough here that we leave the roots in the ground and cover the tops with a deep mulch before the ground freezes. In the spring we'll see what we have by digging and selecting out the best plants. They will be replanted several feet apart since the second year they may become formidable plants that have to be staked to support the masses of seeds produced. It is easy to produce several pounds of seed from a short row of overwintered beet or chard. We will isolate different kinds (unless we are planning to have them hybridize) in poly tunnels or in different gardens separated by buildings or hedgerows.

Oh yes, more important, if you are producing a beet seed crop and a chard seed crop in the same year, they could cross. Most likely, you may end up producing a worthless crop of beets from seeds unintentionally crossed with chard. Chard roots are not of value from a culinary perspective and will cause a significant decline in the quality of your beets.

When the corky seed balls become dry and brown the stems are cut and brought out of the weather to dry some more. Roll the brown fruits off the stems with your fingers if you're producing small amounts of seed. Each fruit contains a few seeds and if they all germinate after planting, will require thinning.

 

BEET

Beet Crosses

Beet Crosses

I don't enjoy eating plain boiled beets. I will eat them in a salad with minced onions au vinegarette but otherwise I just don't particularly enjoy the flavor. So why do I spend so much time breeding beets?

Beets are beautiful. Like the multicolor stems of chards, beet roots can be found in a range of colors from snow white to near black with pinks, yellows, oranges and purples in between. I like the diversity of beets.  We have been crossing a number of beets, including cultivars from USDA that were collected in the Middle East in the 1940's. Our objective is to develop a blend with a nice range of colors, good shape and good sugar content. I'll leave it to others to give me the thumbs up on flavor as I bring my new creations to the table.



SPINACH

(Spinacia oleracea)                          

Spinach is a major small farm crop on Long Island. Typically, it is sown in late summer for fall harvest or fall for an over-wintered spring crop.  Raising spinach from a late spring- early summer sowing often results in failure because spinach is very day-length sensitive. It is a LONG DAY plant meaning that instead of producing masses of large leaves, it is compelled to put it's energy into producing flowers when day lengths are getting longer.   Better get an early start to develop a large plant before the long days of May and June.

Some spinach cultivars have been selected for their long-standing or bolt-resistance since one would rather be able to produce and harvest those leaves for as long as you can. Breeders have selected for bolt-resistance by rouging out early bolters. You should do the same.  Spinach is a hardy annual.

Ladybug Beetle on Prickly or Sharp-Seed Spinach

Ladybug Beetle on Prickly or Sharp-Seed Spinach

Prickly-Seeded spinach cultivars were common at one time, but not any more. Smooth or round seed types are easier to clean and sow. We collected some prickly seed varieties from China, Holland and the Heritage Gardens at Monticello just to see if there were some traits that made them useful in our breeding program. In Jefferson's days prickly varieties were considered the most cold-hardy.  We find that they don't have much bolt resistance so should be sown in the late summer as a fall crop or to overwinter as an early spring green.  This would have made this kind of spinach essential in the colonial days where cold resistance could allow them to harvest nurtient rich "greens" before other crops were ready to be harvested.  They really do have nasty seeds though!


SPINACH EVALUATION:

A smooth-seeded type spinach.

A smooth-seeded type spinach.

Over the years we have been interested in finding a really great tasting spinach. One with a lower metallic oxalic acid taste. In recent years two stand out as very good. Unipack 12, a commercial processing hybrid with it's round, smooth leaves (and good bolt resistance) and Monnopa, an open-pollinated variety from Europe which is well-regarded by organic growers there.

We are participating in the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) trial of Butterflay from Turtle Island Seeds this year. Butterflay is a winner in the taste-test. Quick growing and vigorous from an April sowing, it is a quick germinator and in spite of this spring's heat, kept it's fine flavor. In this year's trial it out performed Unipack in our sandy soils and has many similarities with Unipack. It resisted bolting until temperatures reached in the 90's for several days. Cooler weather would have given us a better, extended harvest since cold can suppress bolt proneness. We'll plant it again in late summer to see how it performs in cold.

In most spinach varieties plants are dioecious (there are also monoecious types with both male and female flowers on the same plant stalk). Here the male plant is in the front and the female plant is in the background. Large clustered fruits (containing the immature seed can be seen on the female stalk. The males appear first and shed lots of wind-blown pollen. If you are producing pure seed of a variety make sure that there aren't any other varieties shedding pollen for at least several thousand feet. It is easy to develop your own designer hybrid though by intercropping two varieties. The males will wither and die leaving the often taller, more robust female plants to mature their seeds.  Spinach is a very easy crop to harvest seed from.  Wait until the plants brown and dry.