2018 is the year of the beet

Each year the National Garden Bureau chooses plants of the year to feature. They have proclaimed 2018 as Year of the Beet. This isn’t one of the more popular vegetables, perhaps as most just know it from cans in the back of the pantry, or the “earthy” taste of traditional varieties. Yet beets are easy to grow, particularly in cool climates.
Beets are rich in fiber, vitamins, iron and antioxidants. The roots come in various colors and shapes, and can be harvested young and small or left to mature larger. Tops — beet greens — can be cooked too, or used in salads. Several new varieties, such as “Merlin” and “Fresh Pak,” are grown just for this purpose. Beet roots can be sliced, roasted, and used in salads as well. You may find beet juice sold as an energy drink, or slices dried as beet chips.
Beets are more popular in many countries; in some, it is a menu staple. In Australia, you may see them sliced on hamburgers. The beet-based soup “borscht” is a staple of Eastern European, Jewish and Mennonite cuisine. Beets were even used medicinally in ancient Rome as a laxative or to cure fevers, and to promote amorous feelings. Beets were used even earlier in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even the Netherlands, going back to at least 2000 BCE.
Ancient beets had thin, fibrous roots and so were consumed for their stems and greens, as we do chard today (a beet relative). One of the earliest records of eating the roots was from Germany or Italy in 1542. At that time, beet roots more resembled a parsnip than the generally rounded shape of modern beets, which began appearing during the late 1500s. These are believed to have come from an ancient North African vegetable. Medieval cooks used beets in pies. Elizabethans used them in tarts and stews. Thomas Jefferson planted them at Monticello.
Another use of beets began in 1747 in Berlin, where the chemist Andreas Marggraf discovered how to extract sugar from beets. His student perfected this process, the King of Prussia supported it, the first sugar beet factory was built in western Poland, and today about 20 percent of the world’s sugar comes from beets. Beet sugar production requires about four times less water than cane sugar production, so it is popular in countries with limited water supplies. Sugar beets are different from our table varieties, being white and cone-shaped.
As with most vegetables, there are a range of beet cultivars (cultivated varieties) to choose from. The most common shape is rounded, like “Ruby Queen,” but you also may find cylindrical beets like “Cylindra” (a great one for canning), or even flattened ones like the heirloom “Flat of Egypt.”
Beets are commonly dark red to purple, such as the classic “Detroit Dark Red.” But there are newer cultivars in other colors, such as the golden “Touchstone Gold” or yellow-fleshed “Boldor.” “Avalanche” is, as you might guess from the name, a white beet. Then there are the Chioggia or candy-stripe beets, with spirals of pink and white.
While beet lovers refer to the taste of older varieties as “earthy”, those that dislike beets refer to it as a dirt taste. This comes from the organic compound “geosmin” which is produced by soil bacteria and is the same earthy smell after a summer rain. While it is believed by many that beets get this flavor from these soil bacteria, recent research and breeding shows that this can be produced within the beet root itself. If you don’t like the taste of traditional beets, try one of the newer cultivars with a much sweeter flavor such as “Merlin,” “Boro,” or “Red Ace.”
Although beets are “biennial” — flowering in their second year of growth — they are not grown for their flowers, but as an annual vegetable. You’ll want to make sure the soil, prior to sowing, is amended with compost and deeply dug, or loosened with a spading fork. Beet roots often grow a foot deep, and can reach three feet deep in loose soils.
Beets will tolerate some shade, but full sun is best. Avoid planting them in the same bed or area where other members of their family, such as spinach or Swiss chard, grew the last year or two. This avoids potential problems such as nutrient disorders.
Beets don’t need, or want, much fertility. In particular, avoid high nitrogen. Use an organic fertilizer, or one low in nitrogen, and moderate in phosphorus (if a soil test indicates you need this at all), and moderate in potassium (potash). Beets prefer an almost neutral to slightly alkaline soil (around pH 7 or above). Brown, scab patches on roots indicates a too acidic soil.
Depending on climate, and the root size you wish to harvest, beets need from 50 to 60 days from sowing to full maturity. Sow seeds directly in the garden, about one-quarter to one-half inch deep. Although beets grow best in cooler climates, don’t sow too early in spring as best germination occurs with soil temperatures of 75 to 85 F. Beet “seeds” actually are a cluster of two to six seeds, so the clusters of seedlings that germinate will need thinning out.
Beets can be sown in spring for an early to mid-summer crop, sowing about three to four weeks before the last usual frost date. Or, sow them in late summer about a month before the first usual frost date for a fall crop. Although beets prefer cool temperatures, and will tolerate some light frost, make sure to cover with heavy row cover fabric if hard frost is predicted.
For greens, space (or thin seedlings) to about two inches apart if harvesting for greens; three inches apart if harvesting in summer; four inches apart if harvesting later for storage. To thin seedlings, use fine scissors or snips to cut plants, rather than pulling and disturbing remaining seedlings. The roots left behind will decompose, enriching the soil.
Beets grow best with cool soil temperatures of 65 to 75 F. A light straw mulch or layer of compost helps moderate soil temperatures. Or, interplant or “companion crop” with other vegetables that will shade the soil, and provide other benefits such as deterring weeds. Bush beans (not pole or runner beans), radishes, lettuce, and members of the cabbage family are good to grow in between rows of beets.
Once beets have formed a rosette of leaves, an extended cold period, as we sometimes get in northern climates — two or more weeks getting below 50 F — can cause them to bolt (form flower stalks), which puts a halt to their root production. If the weather turns cool with cold nights, cover plants with a floating row cover to help keep temperatures higher underneath.
Harvest beets when they are about one and a half to two and a half inches wide for best taste. When they get larger they lose some flavor and develop a coarser texture. Unless the soil is quite porous, gently loosen it first with a spading fork. To avoid “bleeding” (of red and purple beets, not white or gold ones), don’t cut tops off but rather twist them off. Hold the root in one hand, then twist off the tops with the other hand, leaving an inch or two of stems on the roots. Wash soil off before storage. If you don’t plan to use the greens, leave them to decompose and release their nutrients back into the soil.
You can store the tops, wrapped in a moist paper towel, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for two to five days. Roots can be stored two to three weeks in plastic bags in the refrigerator. For longer storage — two to three months for roots — store them in a root cellar or similar cold place (unheated garage for instance) at 32 to 40 F, and about 95 percent humidity. A tub with a cover helps to maintain humidity, layering roots with damp sand, peat moss, sawdust, compost or similar material.
You can learn interesting background and useful growing details on other vegetables of the year, as well as for flowers of the year, from the National Garden Bureau (ngb.org/year-of).
Dr. Leonard Perry is a Horticulture Professor Emeritus at the University of Vermont.

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