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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Sweet Beets

by Kris Wetherbee

'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

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.

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