By Pauline Lloyd

This group of leafy-green vegetables of the family Amaranthaceae includes Chard, Leaf Beet and True Spinach.

Cultivation

Swiss chard. Photo: Pauline Lloyd

Chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla): Chard can be sown from April to July for a crop of vitamin-and-mineral-rich green leaves, plus a supply of succulent midribs. Chard is a colourful and ornamental vegetable, which has large, green, crinkled leaves and makes an extremely decorative and attractive addition to the vegetable patch or border. Common varieties include rainbow chard (consisting of a mixture of different coloured midribs), Swiss chard (which has a white midrib), rhubarb chard (this variety has red midribs), canary yellow (with yellow midribs) and oriole orange (orange midribs). Why not sow a mixture of varieties for an eye-catching display!

Leaf Beets – Perpetual Spinach (Beta vulgaris): Easy to grow and hardy, perpetual spinach is a biennial plant, which resembles true spinach, but is not as prone to bolting in hot, dry weather. It is a very useful and productive vegetable, although perhaps not so attractive to look at as chard. I always have a supply of perpetual spinach in my vegetable garden and I find that apart from the leaves sometimes being nibbled by slugs it seems to be almost disease and pest resistant. The leaves tend to die back in the winter, but start to produce a crop of new, young, green leaves in the spring, before eventually going to seed in the second year. I make two sowings of perpetual spinach annually, the first in April and the second in August, which provides me with an all-year-round supply of this very useful and nutritious vegetable. Incidentally, this group also includes Erbette, a leaf beet, which is grown for its small cut-and-come-again green leaves. It resembles perpetual spinach, but is not as hardy.

True Spinach (Spinacia oleracea): By making successional sowings of several different varieties it’s possible to produce a supply of home-grown spinach for most of the year. The most commonly used varieties include Giant American and Giant Winter, Bloomsdale, Matador, Monnopa, Mediana and New Zealand Spinach. New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia expansa) is technically not a true spinach, but it is drought resistant, has a long growing season and is easier to grow than true spinach, so I have included it here. True Spinach is an annual and seed is usually sown from March to July. It should be watered well in dry weather. You will need to consult individual seed packets for the exact planting instructions. Personally, I have never had much success with the later-sown, winter varieties of true spinach, even where I live in the south of England, and find that a late sowing of perpetual spinach is much more reliable.

Note: All of the beets need to be harvested regularly in order to encourage new leaf production.

Uses

For optimum nutrition spinach is best eaten lightly steamed, juiced or used raw in salads whenever possible, in order to preserve it’s antioxidants. However, it can also be used in a variety of cooked dishes. Try adding some to quiches, terrines and pies, using it in pizza toppings, pureed in dips, or adding it to soup. It can even be used to colour home-made pasta. Young chard can be eaten raw in salads, but the mature leaves and stalks are usually cooked to reduce their bitter flavour. It is often recommended that the leaves and stems of chard should be cooked separately, but this is not strictly speaking necessary. Note: Due to the high oxalate content of this group of vegetables it is best to avoid cooking them in aluminium pans.

Health benefits

Both chard and spinach are very high in vitamin K – a vitamin that is important for maintaining bone health and may also help to prevent arthritis. Lutein and Zeaxanthin are two antioxidants, found in high levels in spinach. They may help to reduce the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. A study carried out by Harvard researchers found that people eating the most Lutein and Zeaxanthin – an average of 5.8mg per day – had a 57 percent decreased risk of macular degeneration, compared with people eating the least. Foods rich in lutein are also thought to help to prevent cancer.

Nutrition

Spinach is high in antioxidants, especially when it is eaten raw. It is also high in protein. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group one cup of cooked spinach will provide 13g protein, whereas a cup of cooked soya beans provides only 9.6g protein. The Wikipedia estimates its protein content to be 2.9g/100g. Spinach is also a useful source of fibre (2.2g/100g) and contains 99mg/100g of calcium, although due to its high oxalate content calcium absorption by the body is only about 5% from spinach. Spinach is also a good source of iron, containing about 2.7mg/100g. In the 1870s, spinach mistakenly gained a reputation for being very high in iron as its iron content was reported to be ten times higher than this due to an error arising from a misplaced decimal point. In addition, spinach is a rich source of folate, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K and magnesium. The nutritional analysis for Chard is very similar to that of spinach.

Mail order suppliers

Thompson & Morgan www.thompson-morgan.com

The Organic Gardening Catalogue www.organiccatalogue.com

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 22 (Winter 2008), p30.