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Swiss chard seems to be quickly becoming a favorite vegetable of many home gardeners. It is actually a member of the beet family that is grown for its edible leaves and stalks. Swiss chard leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked similar to spinach, and the colorful stems can be cooked many ways.

If you want to grow your own Swiss chard, like all vegetables, good site selection is key. Be sure to choose a sunny spot in your garden, as Swiss chard requires eight to 10 hours of sun per day. Loosen the soil to a depth of 10 inches to increase aeration and drainage. Add compost or other soil amendments to improve soil quality.

For fertilization recommendations tailored to your soil, have a soil test done. In absence of a soil test, incorporate a complete garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, at a rate of 1.5 pounds per 100 square feet of garden.

Sow your Swiss chard seeds as soon as the soil is workable. Space seeds out 1 inch apart, and leave 12 to 15 inches between rows, or 8 to 10 inches apart in raised beds. Cover the seeds with a .5 inch layer of soil.

Mulch your Swiss chard plants to conserve water and limit weed competition. Because it is a leafy vegetable, water content is important when growing Swiss chard. Make sure your plants get close to 1 inch of water per week.

Irrigating in the morning is preferred so the leaves can dry before nighttime, limiting plant disease occurrence.

There are many Swiss chard varieties available. They are available in several different colors. Varieties recommended by UGA Extension are "Bright Lights," "Burgundy," "Fordhook," "Lucullus," "Rhubarb," "Ruby" and "Winter King."

Most Swiss chard varieties have a harvestable maturity date ranging from 40 to 45 days.

It can be harvested when the leaves are still young and tender, usually about 12 inches long. At harvest, pick the largest outside leaves. Harvest as needed until the plants "bolt" and go to flower.

As of now, Swiss chard has relatively few disease problems. Its main insect issue is leaf miners, which, as their names suggests, have larvae that bore, or "mine," into the leaves of the Swiss chard. Plants can be covered with cheese cloth or row covers for an organic control of this issue.

Clark MacAllister is the Dawson County extension agent. For more information, call (706)265-2442.