From its humble beginnings around the Mediterranean, the table beet (Beta vulgaris) has spread to all continents of the world, although information on Antarctica is surprisingly hard to come by… Historically, beets have been consumed in many ways: medicinally in ancient Rome, fresh in salads (both the greens and the roots), as soups (think borscht), and as pickled slices and shreds, to name just a few. In some parts of the world, it is a menu staple.
'Lutz Green Leaf' beet
Beets are high in fiber, vitamins A and C and have more iron than most vegetables. They are also rich in antioxidants, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and folic acid. A beet's red color comes from an antioxidant called betalain.
Today, beet juice is marketed as a natural energy drink, powders are encapsulated as nutritional enhancements, and slices are being dried as chips. More conservative approaches are to roast the beet or thinly slice it in a fresh beet salad. Baby beet leaves have gained popularity as a salad green in recent years. Several varieties, such as 'Fresh Pak' and 'Fresh Start', are produced specifically for the baby leaf market. As a superfood, beets are gaining in popularity.
How To Grow
Although beets are a biannual crop (they flower in the second year of growth), the roots can be grown annually in 50 to 95 days depending on climate and desired root size. Plant seeds directly into the soil, ¼ to ½ inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart in rows or blocks and keep evenly moist to encourage germination. Beet 'seeds' are actually little clusters of 2 to 4 seeds. Thin out (and be sure to eat) seedlings by pinching or snipping when they are 1 to 2 inches tall to encourage larger, well-shaped roots for harvest. After thinning, plants should be spaced about 3 inches apart. They prefer slightly acidic soils with some boron content and limited nitrogen. Beets like about 1 inch of water per week. They will tolerate cool temperatures and are usually planted in the spring or early fall and can withstand cooler temps before harvest.
Roots are normally harvested either by gently pulling the tops or digging the roots when they are about 2 1/2" to 3" in diameter (but can be harvested larger or smaller as desired). Root size is strongly determined by sowing density. Beets grow well in containers also.
'Touchstone Gold' beet
Beets are typically red to purple in color, both internally and externally, but some varieties are yellow or red with white rings internally, like 'Touchstone Gold' and 'Chioggia Guardsmark'. 'Avalanche', a recent AAS winner, is pure white and very sweet.
Table beets can come in multiple shapes. The most common is the globe shape, (like AAS Winner 'Ruby Queen') but they can also be cylindrical (like 'Cylindra', 'Alto' or 'Rodina'), top-shaped, flattened (Crosby Egyptian types) or blocky. Some traditional varieties in the U.S. include 'Detroit Dark Red' (great for canning or pickling), and 'Early Wonder Tall Top' for greens and roots. Beetroots store well, both in the ground and after harvest.
Beetroot has a reputation for having an "earthy" taste that some love and some do not. New hybrid varieties have much milder flavor and higher sugar content, attracting new American fans every year. It is a perfect food for the health conscious as well as easy and fun to grow in the garden. It could very well be the kale of the 21st century. Enjoy!
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By Justin Hancock, Monrovia Horticultural Craftsman
Photographs courtesy of Monrovia
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