Fresh beets are better than canned beets

By Jim Janke | Mar 10, 2014

I didn’t like beets when I was growing up. Foul tasting stuff from a can that stained your teeth and looked like congealed Klingon blood pie. Needless to say I never grew beets in our garden.

A few years ago at the Haywood County Fair my multicolored Swiss chard came in second to a red-stemmed variety. So the next year I planted red Swiss chard and it grew beautifully. One day I was thinning the patch and pulled a bunch of leaves out of the ground. A beet came along with the leaves! That night we roasted several beets on the grill, and they were much better than the canned stuff I remembered as a kid. So now we grow beets on purpose. And it’s easy to do.

Beets are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and a good source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, antioxidants, and several minerals. They have been grown for over 3,500 years for both their roots and foliage. The 19th century discovery that sugar could be extracted from them made beets an important crop, and table sugar is the reason most beets are grown today.

As with all root crops, the soil should be loose and full of organic matter. A soil test will tell you if you need to add phosphate (to promote root growth) or other amendments. Beets are biennial, setting seeds during their second year, but they can sometimes bolt prematurely in warm weather.

Soaking seeds in warm water prior to planting will improve germination. Sow a half inch deep and an inch or two apart. Don’t let the young seedlings dry out. Thin to give the roots plenty of room to grow. Planting every other week until mid-May will produce a continuous supply through late summer. Or to get two crops, plant about a month before the last frost in spring (when the soil temperature gets above 40 degrees) and again in July. Beets can be left in the ground all winter; they keep well under a blanket of leaves.

Harvest when the roots are at least an inch in diameter; some varieties will still be tender up to 3 to 4 inches. Pull out the entire plant and cut off the leaves, leaving an inch or two of stem. You can store unwashed beets in plastic bags in the refrigerator for as long as a week. Use the leaves in salads or stir-fry dishes.

Comparing Latin names makes it obvious that Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris cicla) and beets (Beta vulgaris) are closely related. So even though the seed company couldn’t explain how they sold me beet seed instead of Swiss chard, my discovery had a scientific basis. And my “Swiss chard” won a ribbon at the county fair.

Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575. © 2014 NC State University.

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