Let there be chard!

000_0509I went out to the garden on the first day of spring with about as much hope as I’d bring to the observance of a pot of water on an unlit burner. The calendar might call it spring, but in Otsego County it is too early, even, for a harvest of dandelion greens.

Then what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a few leaves of chard, poking up from beneath the disintegrating remains of last year’s crop! I couldn’t have been more excited, and I don’t even like chard. Well, not yet. Given that it looks like I’ll be able to pull enough for a small pot of greens before I even plant the first run of radishes, I’m determined to give it another go.

Chard is one of those things that I fully expected to like—it is leafy and green, for starters. And sometimes shot through with reds and yellows and oranges and purple. It is relatively mild in flavor, and certainly easy to grow. What’s not to like? Perhaps it is because my first experience with chard (which came rather late in life) began in a mistake and disappointment. When I planted my inaugural garden four years ago, I made a list of things I wanted to grow and then set about ordering seeds. One of the things on my wish list was a perennial with thick, tart stems. All those little envelopes of hope! As I learned, there is a difference between rhubarb—just one word—and rhubarb chard. And you can’t make pie with the latter.

I threw the seeds in the ground anyway. The young leaves were pretty and pink-veined and OK for filling out a salad, but I never hit upon a delicious method for cooking their tougher older siblings. Even the name “chard” sounds unpalatable—makes me think of chaff, cardboard. I pulled it all up before the end of the season and planted some more arugula.

Last year’s chaff—I mean chard—was put in by a dear friend who lived in my barn and shared my little plot of dirt. Make that BIG plot of dirt; after several years of cultivating an extension of the driveway, I finally had my neighbor come over and till up a large section of lawn with his tractor. At the end of the season, I was exhausted, but to maintain proper garden hygiene I dutifully yanked out all the spent plants. The chard, however, showed no sign of being spent. Must be my thrifty Scots-Irish heritage, but I just couldn’t bring myself to rip out a productive and theoretically edible plant. And that row of chard continued to thrive even as the frosts came more frequently. By the time it finally gave up, the leaves had grown nearly the size of my thigh, with thick, cartilaginous stems. It seemed like a lot to wrestle with, especially since weather that is inhospitable to chard is also inhospitable to humans.

I had no idea the darn plant was perennial, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Hardy chard. It could be that all those dead leaves above ground provided important insulation for the dormant life below. In any case, it’s alive (cue creepy music). So I spent about an hour clearing away the dead stuff and the early weedlings. By my next visit, I should be able to enjoy fresh produce from the garden. Now, if I can only find a method for making chard that I enjoy….

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