Both beets and Swiss chard are different varieties within the same plant family (Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae) and their edible leaves share a resemblance in both taste and texture. However, unlike chard, attached to the beet’s green leaves is a sweet, round or oblong root. Here’s how to grow them…
History of the Beet
The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we are familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa and eventually spread wild along Asian and European seashores. In these earlier times, people exclusively ate the beet greens and not the roots.
The ancient Romans were one of the first civilizations to cultivate beets to use their roots as food. The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe where they were first used for animal fodder and later for human consumption later in the 16th century.
Beets’ value grew in the 19th century when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar, and the first sugar beet factory was built in Poland. When access to sugar cane was restricted by the British, Napoleon decreed that the beet be used as the primary source of sugar, catalyzing its popularity.
Around this time, beets were also first brought to the United States, where they now flourish. Globally, the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, the Russian Federation, France, Poland, France and Germany.
Today, farmers across the country are fighting the introduction of genetically modified sugar beets into their local agricultural ecosystems. They are deeply concerned that pollen drift from the GMO beets will contaminate non-GMO and organic varieties of table beets, as well as chard and related weeds.
Help support them by avoiding sugar and sugary products made from GMO sugar beets. (Hint: If it’s not organic, and it contains sugar, it almost certainly contains GMO sugar beet.)
There are tons of interesting, heirloom varieties of beets that have a panoply of flavors, colors and shapes you just can’t get from a grocery store, so have fun selecting your beet seeds from the catalogs. (We are members of the Seed Savers Exchange, and I just love their all-heirloom, full-color catalog.)
Beets are a cool weather crop, and are best sown 3 to 4 weeks before your last spring frost. Sow seeds again in late summer for a fall crop. In frost free areas, you can do a third planting in September for a February harvest.
If you are more like me, and you prefer a smaller, continuous harvest throughout the season, sow some beet seeds every three weeks, instead of all at once. In warm areas like Southern California, you can sow beets almost year round, though the warmer it is at harvest time, the less sweet the beets will be.
Direct seeding in the garden is the easiest way to grow beets. They can be grown in most types of soil—including containers—but prefer that it be deep, moist, well-drained, and contain plenty of compost or aged manure. Beets need plenty of sun, but they can tolerate partial shade if the climate is warm.
To aid germination, soak your beet seeds in pure water for 24 hours before planting. Plant beet seeds 2-3 inches apart, and thin to keep the beets spaced about 4-5 inches from each other.
You will probably want 5-10 beets per person in your household, across the season. If you just love beets, or you plan to ferment or can your beets for longterm storage and enjoyment (see pickled beet recipe below), you will probably want to plant more.
Do not plant beets near mustard and pole beans. (Where to get the “Bible” of companion planting)
Beets take about 45 to 65 days to mature, unless you are harvesting them early for baby salad greens. Pick the greens anytime, but harvest the roots when they are between 1 and 3 inches wide, for greatest sweetness.
Pick small or medium-sized beets whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets may be so tender that peeling won’t be needed after they are cooked.
Compost any beets that have spots, bruises or soft, wet areas, all of which indicate spoilage.
Store beets unwashed in the refrigerator crisper where they will keep for two to four weeks. Cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the roots, so they do not pull away moisture away from the root. Leave about two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from “bleeding.”
Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag where they will keep fresh for about four days.
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