Sweet Beets

'Pacemaker III' is a sweet and thin-skinned modern beet hybrid

Beets are among the most healthful vegetables. One-half cup of cooked beets provides four times the fiber of an equal amount of shredded cabbage, and as much potassium as a banana. Beets also contain 25 percent of the folic acid we require daily (cooked beet greens supply even more), and significant amounts of vitamin C, iron, and magnesium.

Have you found any buried treasure in your garden lately? Tiny colorful gems can be yours for the taking when you grow beets (Beta vulgaris). They come in a glistening array of colors, from garnet red to red-and-white striped to deep gold to creamy white, but the real hidden treasure is that the entire beet, from its robust and flavorful root to its buttery green top, is sweet and delicious. And beets mature fast, so gardeners in warmer areas such as Florida and California can plant now for greens and baby beets early in the new year.

Many Flavors, from Top to Bottom

Beets' original ancestors were leafy plants, without bulbous roots, that grew in the moderate climates of the Mediterranean region. Like their cousin, Swiss chard, beet greens are packed with nutrition. However, it's the roots for which beets are best known.

Today, varieties offer an assortment of root flavors, colors, and shapes. If flavor were judged solely on sweetness, the hands-down winner would be the all-white 'Albina Verduna'. This close relative of the sugar beet contains 11 percent sugar, about twice that of red beets. But some sweet, flavorful red varieties also stand out. 'Detroit Supreme', 'Pacemaker III', 'Red Ball', and 'Red Ace' are good all-purpose, sweet-tasting beets. 'Lutz Green Leaf' (sometimes sold as 'Winter Keeper') produces tasty greens as well as large, baseball-sized roots that stay amazingly sweet and tender and store well through winter.

For a color variation, try 'Golden', with bright yellow flesh and a sweet potato-like flavor, or the heirloom 'Chioggia', featuring red-and-white-striped flesh and sweet flavor.

Not all beet roots are large and round. 'Cylindra', 'Forono', and 'Formanova' have cylindrical, purple-red roots. These types are best for canning and pickling. Upscale restaurants feature round baby beets such as 'Kestral', bred to be harvested at 1 to 2 inches in diameter.

If beet greens are your true passion, plant 'Early Wonder Tall Top', with maroon-tinged leaves and purplish red, round roots. 'MacGregor's Favorite', an heirloom, features small, spear-shaped reddish purple leaves on insignificant, tapered roots.

Preparing the Bed

Soil amended with plenty of organic matter and formed into raised beds will retain moisture, let excess water drain, and be loose enough for beet roots to form and expand quickly. The faster the growth, the better the roots' flavor and texture. Slow-growing beets often produce only tiny roots or flavorless, large roots with a tough, pithy texture.

Before planting, improve soil fertility by working in a few inches of well-aged manure or 1/2 cup of complete fertilizer such as 5-10-10 for every 5 to 6 feet of row. If your soils are low in boron, your beets will tell you. The roots get black areas on the skins. Boron deficiency is most often found in the alkaline soils of the Southwest. Periodically test your soil to be sure you have all the right nutrients. If your beets are slow growing and the greens are looking a bit yellow, side-dress the plants at the time of the second thinning with a nitrogen fertilizer such as fish emulsion.

Sowing Seed

The first time I held a beet seed, I was amazed by its appearance. The tiny brown objects look like Grape-Nuts. The seed is actually a fruit cluster containing several embryos, and each cluster can produce three to five seedlings. That's why no matter how carefully you space your seeds when planting, you'll get many seedlings growing next to each other. To extend your harvest, make several sowings 2 to 3 weeks apart in spring. (In fall, plant up to 4 to 6 weeks before an expected freeze.) However, don't undersow the seeds. Beets take up to 2 weeks to germinate, and germination rates can be erratic, especially with golden and heirloom varieties. If you've had a hard time in the past germinating your seeds, consider pregerminating them by soaking the seeds in warm water overnight, swishing them around a few times to be sure the water saturates the seed. You can also sow seed indoors to avoid poor germination in wet, cold soil. Be sure to transplant the seedlings no more than a few weeks after germination. If the taproot gets long enough to curl or coil, the beet will probably be distorted.

Beets can tolerate light frosts, but wait until the soil has warmed (or cooled, for fall planting) to about 50° F before seeding. Sow seeds about 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart, or broadcast over the bed. To enhance the germination rate, cover seeds with a fine medium such as compost or vermiculite.

Keep the Beet Going

Keep the seedbed uniformly moist until seedlings appear. Consistent moisture is especially critical after sowing. Beets are shallow-rooted, and one hot day can dry the soil down to root level, killing the seedling. In dry climate areas, consider planting seeds in 2- to 3-inch-deep furrows. Moisture will collect in the furrow, and the soil will tend to stay wet longer. To get good-sized roots, thin newly emerged seedlings to one per fruit cluster. For broadcasted seed, thin seedlings to 2 inches apart. When thinning, cut the seedling with scissors instead of pulling it out. Cutting is less likely to disturb the root system of the beet seedlings left behind. When the tops are 4 to 6 inches tall, thin again to 4 inches apart. This time pull the thinnings with the immature beets attached and use them in the kitchen. If you are growing your beets just for the delicious greens, then thinning isn't necessary.

For good-quality roots, water well and mulch the plants with hay or straw piled 2 to 3 inches thick. Beet roots that haven't had a consistent supply of water tend to be stringy and woody. Flea beetles or leaf miners may damage the leaves, but these pests are seldom a serious problem. Just pick off damaged leaves, and more will grow.

Leafhoppers feeding on leaves can transmit viruses such as the curly top virus, which can destroy the crop. If some of your beets are stunted and the leaf edges are curled, pick and destroy those plants. To discourage pests, keep the growing area free from weeds where insects may hide, or grow the plants under floating row covers to prevent them from reaching your beet plants.

In the Kitchen

Harvest greens whenever you wish (they are most tender when 4 to 6 inches long). Use beet greens as you would spinach and Swiss chard. When young, the tender, mild greens can be dressed with vinegar and tossed in salads or used in quick stir fries. Mature greens require slightly longer cooking and are delicious simply sauteed in garlic and olive oil and topped with shavings of Parmesan cheese.

About 50 days after sowing, the roots of most varieties are ready to harvest. For best flavor and tenderness, harvest roots when they are the size of golf balls. Young roots taste great lightly steamed, shredded and sauteed in butter, or pickled. Baking is ideal for any larger roots you missed, and beets small and large can be roasted to bring out their delicate, yet earthy flavor.

Baked Beets
Baking is one of the best ways to bring out the sweet, earthy intensity of beets. Although it's a lengthy process, the result is a rich, concentrated flavor unmatched by other cooking methods. Serve baked beets sliced in salads seasoned with walnut oil, vinegar, and grindings of salt and pepper, or topped with crumbled goat cheese and broiled for a few minutes.

4 to 6 medium beets, washed and trimmed with about 1 inch of stalk attached

Preheat oven to 400? F. Wrap beets together in foil or parchment paper. Crimp the edges to seal and place them in the upper third of the oven. Bake for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until tender but still firm. Slip off the darkened skins and trim off the stalks before serving. Serves 4

Beets taste great, but they can be messy in the kitchen. To keep their color from bleeding, try these tips:

  • Add a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar to the cooking water to help stabilize the red pigment.
  • Leave 1 inch of leaf stalk attached to the root.
  • To remove beet stains from your hands, wash them with lemon juice.
  • Grow white or gold beets instead; they won't bleed.

Kris Wetherbee lives in Oakland, Oregon and has been a frequent contributor to National Gardening.

Photography by Didier Delmas

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