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Growing Beets: From Garden to Table

Grow beets, a perfect side dish for nearly every meal, with these tips on growing varieties, when and how you plant beets, and how to care for them!

| May/June 1989

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    Beet roots and their greens can be baked, boiled, steamed, pickled, and canned, and are delicious in soups or salads.

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Growing beets (Beta vulgaris) is the perfect project for the black-thumbed gardener. This pretty, versatile vegetable thrives with a minimum of care in almost any soil and climate and is practically pest- and disease-free. Its tasty roots (which can be baked, boiled, steamed or pickled for use in side dishes, soups and salads) and its colorful, leafy tops (which, in my opinion, are the most delicious of cooked greens) are extremely low in fat and calories. The roots are also rich in potassium and contain small amounts of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, phosphorus, niacin and vitamins A and C. The red-veined, dark green leaves, when eaten raw, provide huge amounts of potassium, twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, half the RDA of vitamin C, goodly portions of calcium, protein, phosphorus and iron and small amounts of niacin and riboflavin. On top of all that, successive plantings and root cellaring (not to mention freezing, canning and drying) make it possible to enjoy a home-grown beet crop all year long.

Beets are a basic part of the world's diet, but the vegetable as we now know it is relatively new to agriculture. The beet originated in southern Europe as a leafy plant with nonfleshy roots. It was cultivated in this form by the Greeks and Romans—the latter used it to restore flavor to wine that had deteriorated in the vat—and by Europeans of the Middle Ages. Swiss chard, a "bottomless" beet, is an improved version of those early leafy types, and it wasn't until the 16th century that a large-rooted beet began to be cultivated. This carrot-shaped version, still available today, is slow to mature, but it keeps so well that it's used widely for winter storage. Today's more popular round beet was developed just over a half-century ago. In between the long and the round types is an oval-shaped beet, known as the "intermediate," "tankard" or "canister" beet.

Selecting a Beet Variety to Grow

When selecting a beet variety, you should consider the crop's intended use. Red and purple roots are the most popular, but you can also opt for white and gold varieties, which won't "bleed" when cut. Some people like the long beets—such as Denmark's tender Cylindra, also called Tender Sweet (55 to 60 days to maturity)—which in addition to storing well are easier to slice.

If you'll be growing beets in heavy soil, under cloches, in frames or in a container, choose a round variety. (Beets make very pretty patio plants and are decorative enough to be planted with flowers.) You might also select a type grown mainly for its leaves. (Try the tender and sweet Lutz Green Leaf. The roots take 80 days to develop to full size, but in the meantime you can feast on its pink-ribbed, glossy green leaves, which don't grow bitter as they get bigger.) As yet another option, you can choose between quickly maturing types for early spring planting and late or main-crop types, which take longer to mature but which keep well through the winter. For example, the early-maturing Ruby Queen (52 to 55 days) is excellent for pickling and canning; Early Wonder (48 to 55 days) transplants well and produces especially good greens; and orange-skinned Golden Beet (50 to 55 days) has yellow flesh that remains tender and sweet as it matures, and yields greens that taste delicious whether fresh or cooked. Golden Beet does, however, germinate more slowly than most other varieties.

Some main-crop types include the ever-popular Detroit Dark Red (60 days), which adapts well to various regions and is great for freezing, canning or storing. (Many of the new hybrids are improved Detroit types.) Long Season (78 to 80 days) has very tasty leaves and rough-looking but tender, sweet roots, which are excellent for storage. Then there are baby beets, developed especially for canning whole, such as Little Ball (56 days), whose roots stay small (about one and a half inches) even as they age.

When and How to Plant Beets

Beta vulgaris is a biennial that's grown as an annual. Classed as a cool-weather crop, beets obtain their greatest growth when temperatures average around 60° to 65°F. Yet they are fairly heat tolerant. However, if you live where summers are extremely hot, use beets as a spring, fall or winter crop, timing your plantings so they don't mature during the hottest weather.

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