Silverbeet, spinach, Swiss chard, rainbow chard… what is the difference?

Apr 25, 2023 | Brassicas, Gardening tips

Top planting tips:

prepare soil to a fine tilth

  • soak silverbeet/chard seed but not spinach seed
  • add compost or well-rotted manure
  • keep well watered

Silverbeet, spinach, Swiss chard and rainbow chard all belong to the Amaranthaceae family but they are not all the same. Spinach is from the sub family Spinacia oleracea while the others are from the sub family Beta vulgaris. Beetroot also belongs to the Beta vulgaris sub family and the leaves can be used as a spinach substitute.

Let’s focus on spinach first as this plant is an annual while the others are biennial. Spinach is grown in 2 forms – baby spinach and full-grown spinach. The baby leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. They are sweeter than mature spinach because they are harvested before the bitter compounds develop. Mature spinach is generally cooked.

Spinach is a cool weather crop with a short growing season in Victoria. Plant in May for a winter and early spring crop. Spinach runs to seed very quickly as the weather warms and will generally be finished by late spring. Prepare the soil a fine tilth, and add compost or well-rotted manure for quick growth. Spinach seed is best planted direct into the ground at a depth of 2cm and if this is done, cover them with soil and keep it damp (not wet) until the seed germinates in about 10 days’ time. When transplanted from punnets, seedlings do not appreciate root disturbance so need to be handled very carefully. Plant seedlings so that the lower leaves are just covered by soil. This means they won’t wobble in the wind and they will develop strongly. Keep well watered.

Silverbeet and Swiss chard have thick white stems and large, dark, glossy, crinkly leaves which fan out from a central point. Rainbow chard has stems of red, pink, yellow or orange and grows in the same way. Some red-stemmed and red-veined varieties such as ‘Ruby Red’ chard have dark green leaves with a reddish tinge as well. Generally, silverbeet and chard are cooked as the leaves and stems are tougher than say, baby spinach, and steaming sweetens the taste.

April – May is the best time to plant silverbeet and chard. Prepare the soil to a fine tilth and add plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. The latter will supply the plant with a ready source of nitrogen, and nitrogen as we know, produces strong leaf growth. It also speeds up growth, and this produces a better taste. As they are biennial you will be able to harvest the plants for 2 years. If planting from seed, pre-soak the seed for 24 hours, starting off by placing the seeds in lukewarm water. This helps soften the tough seed casing and they will germinate earlier than non-soaked seeds. Any non-viable seed will rise to the surface and float, and can be scooped out and discarded. If planting directly into the soil, plant at a depth of 2cm and cover with soil. If planting seedlings, plant deeply so that the stem is well anchored into the soil, and water them every 2 days until they are established, and then once a week.

In the UK and the USA, what we call silverbeet is called chard so when reading about these vegetables be sure to identify what country the author is from.

Dark green leafy vegetables grow very well in shady areas of the vegie garden. As long as they receive 3 hours of morning sun (partial shade) they will do well because dark leaves need less sunlight.

Spinach, silverbeet and chard all benefit from a nitrogen feed every fortnight. ‘Charlie Carp’ is an excellent foliar source of nitrogen. (Other foliar sprays such as Maxicrop and Seasol are unsuitable as they contain very little nitrogen).

Snails and slugs are the main pests. You will see large holes within the body of the leaf where they have fed. Protect with snail bait or alternatives or check seedlings at night and remove snails and slugs by the light of a torch. Caterpillars can be a problem too. Spraying with Dipel which is organic will protect the plants from them. Aphids and leaf miners are the other 2 pests that attack these plants. Spray with a hard jet of water to get rid of aphids and spray with horticultural oil to smother leafminers.

Written by Robin Gale-Baker