Awhile back here on Dave’s Garden, in an article titled “We Got the Beet,” I provided a brief overview of how to grow beets (Beta vulgaris), one of the most beautiful, healthful and easy vegetables there is. Beets have received some interesting publicity since then, so it’s time to share more details on this wonderful cool season crop.
As with any root vegetable, beets prefer loose soil for good development…unless, of course, you’re just growing them for their tasty leaves, which many gardeners do. Beets can be planted in the spring or fall in most areas, about six weeks prior to the first or last estimated frost in your area.
Soak seeds in compost tea overnight before planting to soften the hard seed coat. Each beet seed is actually a pod containing several seeds, so thinning seedlings to 3”-5” apart once they emerge is extra-important. You should be able to harvest your beets about two months after planting.
As long as the ground in your area doesn’t freeze solid, you can over-winter beets and other root crops by just leaving them where they are until spring. Pile straw around the plants to insulate from the cold. They may not taste as good come March, but they should survive.
If you’re lucky enough to have a root cellar, unwashed beet roots can be stored there for several months. Otherwise, they’ll last about a month in your refrigerator’s veggie drawer. (Cut off, clean and use beet greens immediately, however.)
Of course, the most popular method of keeping beets is to pickle them. You should first boil or roast the beets to desired tenderness before removing the skins, slicing, packing into jars and submerging in boiling vinegar. (I used to love helping my mother do this when I was little. After the beets are boiled and cooled, the skins slide off very easily and that was my chore – skinning the beets while my hands turned magenta.)
Are some beet types better suited for certain uses than others? To an extent, yes. For example, the heirloom ‘Lutz Green Leaf’ is highly recommended for both its tasty green tops and the excellent storage capability of the roots. ‘Red Ace’ is lauded for its vigor and maintained sweetness even when the roots get older. ‘Gladiator’ tends to hold its color when cooked and is also excellent for canning. (See the full list of beet attributes from the University of Illinois Extension Service.)
Although not one of most popular vegetables here in the U.S., most of the news surrounding beets -- including their health benefits and other uses -- continues to get "beetter." Read on:
A waste product created when beets are made into commercial grade sugar is now being used as an additive to road de-icing formulas. The brown-colored beet derivative is less corrosive on roads, is easier to clean up than salt/sand mixtures and actually helps to lower the freezing temperature of salt mixtures. (USA Today, 2008: Cities, states testing beet juice mixture on roadways)
Take a look at the ingredients listed on a bottle of one of Scott’s fairly new products: Miracle-Gro® Organic Choice® All Purpose Plant Food Concentrate. It’s basically molasses made from beets. (Users report it works well, but can become really stinky if left unused for too long.)
Not all of the publicity surrounding beets is good, however. Biotech giant Monsanto has been getting into well-deserved trouble the past few years due to its latest Franken-vegetable: the genetically modified sugar beet. “Roundup Ready” sugar beets were introduced to farmers during the 2007-2008 crop seasons. In 2010, more than 90 percent of the sugar beets grown in North America were Roundup Ready varieties. However, after a ruling determined the USDA had not been allowed to sufficiently review the environmental effect of the herbicide-resistant modified beets, Monsanto was ordered to destroy its entire crop in December 2010. Earlier this year, the USDA authorized spring planting of the beets with certain conditions. (St. Louis Business Journal, February 2011: USDA allows Monsanto sugar beets this season)
Just one more great reason to grow your own, right?
Please also see "We Got the Beet," my beet growing overview from February, 2008.
I am an avid organic gardener and certified Master Gardener for Collin County, Texas (that's North Dallas). However, I don't take being an MG too seriously, as I still manage to kill plants on a regular basis.
I enjoy growing nearly everything: vegetables, herbs, tropicals, roses...the only plants I'm really bad with are orchids and houseplants. I am also a fierce defender of spiders.
When not gardening I can be found cooking, birdwatching or hugging on either my sweet English hubby or my two wonderful doggies, Ray and Bailey.