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If you haven’t seeded your beets in the garden, it’s not too late. Beets (Beta vulgaris) can be seeded early in May, or as late as mid-July because of their relatively short growing season (55 days or so).
Beets are a member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiacea) because their leaves were supposed to resemble those of geese. The word beet is from the Celtic “bett,” meaning red.
For those of us who make beet leaf “roll-ups” stuffed with rice, it’s reassuring to learn beets were indeed first cultivated for their leaves rather than their roots, as seen in 8th century BC cuneiform tablets from Babylon. They were well-established in the Mediterranean region by classical Greek times, when they were used medicinally and for flavouring.
The large roots we use today were not known until the Christian era. Beets gradually spread through Europe where they were first called “Roman beets”, indicating the swollen red taproots had been developed and introduced from Italy during the Roman era.
In his 1597 Herbal, Gerard wrote “the greater red bet or Roman beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegre and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate salad.”
These early beets tended to be coarse, misshapen and hairy. The smaller globes were not developed until the 1800s. By 1828, four varieties were listed in American seed catalogues. ‘Detroit Dark Red’, still a favourite today, was first listed in an American catalogue in 1892.
Beets can be seeded early in spring although plants might bolt if seedlings experience many days of cool weather (5°C or below), forming flowers and seed heads instead of good-sized roots. Extreme heat in summer can also cause bolting. Plant beet seeds 5 mm deep, either in a scatter row or 30-45 cm between rows. Thin plants to 5-7.5cm spacings within the row. There is no need to ‘hill’ beet roots with soil if they push out of the ground; the feeder roots remain below ground.
Staggered plantings for beets are recommended to provide a long harvest period of tender, juicy roots: older beet roots tend to be oversized and may also have a tough, woody texture. By seeding a new row of beets 2-3 weeks apart until mid-July, one can ensure that the beets you harvest will have excellent texture and flavour right through to fall.
Young beet seedling leaves are a favourite of sparrows: don’t be surprised to see your morning beet seedlings disappear by the time you come home from work in the late afternoon. Cover beet rows with crop covers or supported bird netting early in the season.
Beet roots come in a variety of colours; from red to striped white and red, pink, black to orangish yellow and white. The flavour among all of the beet types is very similar. Beets that are used to make sugar (ie. sugar beets) are different than garden beets. Sugar beets have a sugar content of 15-20% and are a long season crop whereas garden beets usually contain only 5% sugar content. Garden beets are not only grown for their edible root but they can also be grown for their edible leaves; used in salads and beet-dough roll-ups. ‘First Crop’ and ‘Early Wonder Top’ are two beet cultivars recommended for their large, flavourful leaves.
Beet harvest can start as soon as roots are the size that you desire. Most beet roots have reached their prime flavor when they are 5-7.5cm in width. Cut petioles at approximately 4 cm above the top of the root. As with all root crops, do not cut off the root at the bottom as this will lead to desiccation in storage as well as beet ‘bleeding’. Beets will tolerate some autumn frost and will sweeten up with cool autumn temperatures.
Ideal storage conditions for beets are just above 0°C and high humidity. Storing root crops in a plastic bag in a fridge or in moist sand in your garage (just above 0°C) are good locations. Remove excess soil before storage. If you must wash roots before storage, wash gently: new wounds will encourage bacterial rots.
Betacyanin, the pigment responsible for the red colour, is extremely water soluble. Which is why borscht is red. And in some individuals, lacking the requisite genes to properly metabolize betacyanin, beets turn their urine pink.
Retired from the University of Saskatchewan, Sara’s most recent book is Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens with Bob Bors. She’s been hosting garden tours for over 20 years — to Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, Turkey and Iceland. Join her for a tour of French gardens this September [Contact Ruth at 1-888-778-2378, www.worldwideecotours.com]
Jackie Bantle is horticulturist living on an acreage north of Saskatoon.
This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society. Reach the society by email at [email protected] or visit their website at saskperennial.ca. You can find them on Facebook at facebook.com/saskperennial. The Spring Plant Exchange will be held on Sunday, May 29. The plant exchange will start around two o’clock for more information please see the website. These are “member only” events, but memberships are available at the door for $10.00.
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