The Beet Goes On
by Judy Heyer
Copyright Judy Heyer, 2000. All Rights Reserved.
I love dual purpose vegetables that offer me twice the bang for my buck. If they also contribute to my daily vitamin and mineral intake, I feel like I'm really getting full value for my money. One of these dual purpose vegetables is Beta vulgaris - otherwise known as the lowly beet.
A member of the Goosefoot family, beets are closely related to Swiss chard. However, unlike Swiss chard, beets have both edible greens and roots.
Relatively easy to grow, beets are hardy and grow best in cool weather. In fact, the secret to growing beets is to grow them rapidly in cool soil. For really spectacular beets that are sweet and tender, plant them in a loose, rich soil, keep them weed free, and provide ample water during dry weather.
Prepare your garden area by breaking up the soil one or two spade-lengths deep - beet taproots may reach down six feet or more. Work extra compost or aged manure into the soil, as beets are heavy feeders. The optimum soil pH for beets is 6.0 - 6.8; however, a range from 5.5 to 7.4 is acceptable. Beets require potassium which can be provided by applying seaweed, lime, or ashes to the soil.
In some areas soil may suffer from boron deficiency which results in the core of the beet turning soft with a grayish color. If this is the case, the addition of a small amount of boron will compensate for any deficiency in the soil.
The beet 'seed' is actually a fruit with several seeds enclosed - this is why several plants may come up in one spot -no matter how carefully you space the seeds. Some seed companies now offer monogerm seeds that produce single plants. Seeds are notoriously slow to germinate, so mark the rows by planting a fast-growing crop, such as radishes, with the beet seeds. The radishes will be up and eaten before the beets require the growing space. To speed up germination, soak the seeds in lukewarm water overnight.
Plant seeds as soon as the soil can be worked in early spring - 1/2" deep, and 2" apart in single or wide rows. Cover the seeds lightly with fine soil or screened compost. Tamp the soil, and water in. Once the seedlings emerge, thin them to stand 3" - 4" apart.
Successive sowings can be made at two or three week intervals for a continuous harvest of young, tender beets and greens. Repeat this until daytime temperatures become too warm. Hot weather may stress the plants into producing tough, woody roots. Lilliputian-sized garden? No problem - tuck a few beets in your flower garden. Beets have attractive foliage, and the plants will tolerate partial shade.
For a fall crop, sow the seeds approximately 5-6 weeks before the first frost so the plants have time to mature.
Water beets consistently, particularly in hot weather. Cracking in the roots may be the result of interrupted growth due to alternate wet and dry spells.
Harvest beets once the roots reach 1"-2" in diameter. The leaves can be harvested as soon as they are big enough to eat - allow enough greens to remain on the beet for proper root development. For beets that are really tender, dig them up within 2 weeks after reaching full size. Long season beets can remain in the ground all season without any deterioration in quality.
What does this powerhouse vegetable contain in the health department? Beets have anti-carcinogenic properties, and provide folic acid, Potassium, Calcium, Iron, Phosphorus, and Vitamin A to your diet. The greens, particularly, are extremely high in Vitamin A, containing 6,700 I.U. per 100 gm.
Are beets synonymous with the colour red in your mind? Well, think again! Beets are also available in orange, white, and a beautiful red-and-white stripe.
In the kitchen - beet greens can be used in place of spinach. The roots can be pickled, or grated into salads. Beets can also be baked, canned, frozen, or used to make a wonderful 'borscht'. Give this vegetable a try in your garden, and find out for yourself why the beet goes on!