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 Beetroot
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.)
The sweetest table beet you can grow is arguably the all-white ‘Albina Vereduna’. This close relative of the sugar beet contains 11% sugar—about twice that of red beets.
But there are many sweet red beet varieties that are also outstanding to grow. ‘Detroit Dark Red’ is an old-time beet variety with rich, dark-red, 3-inch roots. ‘Bull’s Blood’ is very sweet and has pretty rings inside and reddish-purple leaves that are colorful in salads.
For something new, try ‘Golden’, which has bright yellow flesh and a sweet potato-like flavor, or the heirloom ‘Chioggia’, featuring red-and-white-striped flesh.
If you love beet greens, plant ‘Tall Top Early Wonder’, with maroon-tinged leaves and purplish red, round roots. Beet greens can be eaten like spinach or Swiss chard, tossed in salads or used in quick stir fries.
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. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep and 1 inch apart. After they come up, thin seedlings to stand 1½ to 2 inches apart. A month later thin plants to about 4 inches apart. For beet greens only, sow seeds 1/2 inch apart in all directions. No thinning is necessary.
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.
Beets are seldom bothered by pests or disease. Companion plants for beets include bush beans, anything in the cabbage family, corn, leeks, lettuce, lima beans, onions, and radishes. 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.
Beet Storage & Preservation
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.
To keep beets longer, you can slice and dehydrate them into chips, freeze them, can them, or ferment them. Fermenting beets is a great way to enhance their nutrition and provide gut-healthy probiotics. Here is a basic recipe: Simple Pickled Beets
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