EDIBLES: By Mary James • Photography by Bob Wigand
The Beet Grows On
Tender beets, homegrown and pickled by my mother, spiced many of my childhood meals. Little did I know that many people avoid these iron-rich roots, turned off by rubbery, bland or syrupy-sweet beets from supermarket shelves.
Today farm-fresh markets and restaurants are changing minds about beets. Freshly harvested roots as well as the leafy green tops now star in sophisticated soups, salads and sides that bring rich color and sweet, earthy flavors to the table.
Beets (Beta vulgaris) also are jewels in edible landscapes. Their ruffled dark-green leaves and yellow or magenta stems gleam in the late winter sun alongside other cool-season crops and early-blooming bulbs. The classic ‘Bull’s Blood’ is particularly pretty and vigorous.
Another kitchen garden favorite is ‘Red Ace’ from Park Seed (parkseed.com) and Johnny’s Selected Seed (johnnyseeds.com). Fast growing, adaptable and productive, it delivers bright red-stemmed greens and scarlet roots ahead of other varieties.
As gourmet cooks know, beets aren’t just “beet-colored.” ‘Golden’ is a warm orange-yellow while ‘Chioggia’ is red and white striped. Both are available from Renee’s Gar-den Seeds (reneesgarden.com), which also sells seeds for petite ‘Baby Ball’ beets.
Among the 15 beet varieties offered by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds are snow-white ‘Albino’ beets from Holland; France’s famed black-fleshed ‘Crapaudine’; long cylindrical beets in shades of yellow, purple and red; ‘Mammoth Red Mangel’ with roots that can weigh up to 20 pounds; and they also carry ‘Chioggia’. Order them from rare-seeds.com.
For urban gardeners with limited space, beets are a boon. Starting now, plant successive crops monthly for fresh beets throughout winter into early spring — or longer if gardening in coastal areas.
Choose a sunny site with good-draining soil cleared of rocks. If gardening in a raised bed or container, be sure they are at least 8 inches deep. Amend the soil with compost and a vegetable fertilizer to be sure seedlings get the phosphorous necessary for strong root development.
Each beet seed is really a cluster of three to four smaller seeds that will germinate in a clump. Take care to space the seeds according to package directions. When seedlings are a couple inches tall, thin them, leaving 3 inches between the remaining plants. For a taste treat, toss the baby leaves of the thinned plants into a winter salad.
Fertilize several times during the growing season and keep the soil evenly moist with regular irrigation and a layer of mulch. Temperature extremes or dryness result in woody roots. Pests like leaf miners and leafhoppers can be thwarted with protective row covers.
Begin harvesting some of the beets when they are about 2 inches round. Allow others to mature to 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Leaves can be harvested with the roots or snipped at intervals, leaving enough behind to continue to nourish the plant.
Use this bounty to discover the versatility of beets. Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seeds shares some favorite recipes, including a festive beet and green apple salad, on her website.
Planting time: Grow in the cool-season vegetable garden. Plant successive crops Sept. through May along the coast; Sept. to mid-Apr. inland.
Where: Full sun
Soil: Well-draining and amended with compost
Water: Keep evenly moist. If allowed to dry out, roots become woody.
Feed: Fertilize two or three times during the growing season with balanced vegetable fertilizer.
Prune: Thin seedlings when 2-inches high to leave 3 inches between each plant.
Growth: Roots mature in about 60 days; yield is 8-10 pounds per 10-foot row.
Pests: Leaf miners, leafhoppers and flea beetles — protect young plants with row covers.
Botanical name: Beta vulgaris
Pronunciation: Bay-ta vul-gair-is
Common names: Beet
Plant type: Biennial grown as an annual
Habit: Root vegetable
Foliage: Green leaves on sturdy stems up to 1 foot tall
Fruit: Round or cylindrical roots in shades of ruby red, gold, white and deep purple