Sanctuary Spotlight: How to Grow Beets

One of my favorite fall crops is beets. Growing up, I always loved canned beets. Then, as an adult, I tasted fresh beets and my love increased! What a wonderfully sweet, nutritious crop to grow. And, planting your own beets gives you two crops for the same effort. Both the roots and the greens are edible and highly nutritious. Even if you grew up disliking beets, eating fresh beets may just surprise your taste buds. Consider growing them in your garden this fall.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

Beets, scientifically known as beta vulgaris (subsp. vulgaris for cultivated varieties), are part of the Amaranthaceae family along with spinach and chard. Although most of us know the most common red-purple variety, there are varities that are golden yellow, white, and red & white striped.

It’s an ancient vegetable, with evidence of cultivation dating back to the second millenium BCE, along the Mediterranean coast. It spread to Babylonia in the 8th century BCE and east to China by 850 CE. Up until the time of the Roman Empire, beets were grown for their greens – until spinach came along and rivaled the beet for greens on the table. The Romans were the first to cultivate the beet for its roots, which they thought were not only healthy but were also an aphrodisiac. Invaders of the Roman Empire later spread the beet across Europe. Then colonists brought them to America.

During the time of Napoleon, Great Britain restricted the use of tropical sugar cane, so Napoleon decreed that beets would be grown to create sugar. Today, we still use sugar beets as a sweetener.

Beets are a nutritional powerhouse. High in fiber and anti-oxidants, they also contain phyto-nutrients that are anti-inflammatory in nature. Both the roots and the greens contain high levels of vitamins and minerals. In fact, the greens are even more nutritional than the roots. (So, if you don’t like beet roots, you might want to try the greens.) Here are just SOME of the nutrients in the roots and greens, based on daily recommended values:

ROOTS – 1/2 cup sliced, cooked (boiled/steamed):

  • 17% folate
  • 5% vitamin C
  • 14% manganese
  • 7% potassium
  • 5% magnesium
  • 4% iron

GREENS – 1 cup of 1 inch pieces, cooked:

  • 871% vitamin K
  • 220% vitamin A
  • 60% vitamin C
  • 24% riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • 37% each potassium & manganese
  • 24% magnesium
  • 18% copper
  • 16% calcium
  • 15% iron

GROWING BEETS:

Beets can be grown in zones 2-10, under full to part sun, in well-drained, loamy soil with a pH of 6.5-7.5. This biennial is a good indicator of soil pH as growth will be stunted if the soil pH is much below 6.5, so check your soil pH before planting. Applying wood ash will add potassium and increase the pH some, if needed.

Because beets need good nutrients to grow, fill your soil with organic matter and mix manure compost or 10-10-10 fertilizer into the top 4-6 inches of soil before planting. (As a note, added nitrogen will help beets develop their greens, but at the expense of the roots. If you’re growing them just for the greens, added nitrogen should be okay.)

Plant beets when the soil is at least 55 degrees but not until daily temperatures are below 85 degrees. Beets germinate in 7-14 days when the soil is between 55 and 75 degrees, and the daily temperatures are less than 80 degrees. Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep, 3-4 inches apart. Many seeds contain more than one plant, so you will have to thin your beets when the seedlings are about two inches tall. (You can use the thinnings in salads or sauteed.)

Beets need consistent moisture to grow, so keep them watered and mulched well. They don’t compete well with weeds, so be sure to weed often.

HARVESTING BEETS:

Depending on variety, beets mature in 50-70 days. The longer you leave them in the ground, the larger they will grow. However, beets that are larger than 2-3 inches in diameter can get woody. They are more tender when smaller. A good rule of thumb I’ve read is to not let the greens get taller than six inches before harvesting.

Always store the greens separately from the roots. Leave about an inch of the stem on the roots and store in the refrigerator for up to a week or store in a cool, dry place  – like in a cooler in the basement – after brushing off the dirt. The greens can be blanched and frozen if not eaten immediately.

Cooked beets

Cooked beets

FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:

I love beet roots boiled until al dente then marinated in wine vinegar and cracked black pepper. Yum! The greens can be used fresh in salads, added to soups, or sauteed. Here are some recipe ideas for both the roots and the greens:

Roasted Beets with Balsamic Glaze  (Roasted beets are sweeter than boiled/steamed beets – I’m going to try this recipe!)

Beet Greens  (You can use turkey bacon for this if you don’t eat pork.)

Mystery Chocolate Cake  (A great way to sneak beets into the diet of beet haters!)

Hopefully, I’ve convinced some of you beet haters that this is not the horror vegetable of your childhood. I’d love to hear from any of you beet-adverse gardeners who decided to grow beets this fall and ended up liking them.

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