LIVING

No need to rush beet harvest; just pull them as needed from the ground

11/11/2014 08:15 EST | Updated 01/11/2015 05:59 EST
Red orbs are rising out of the soil in my garden, demanding to be pulled. I will pull them, but not all at once.

Beets can remain in place for weeks — even months — to come if leaves or straw are thrown over them to insulate them against frigid temperatures.

That's one nice thing about growing beets: You can eat them fresh for much of the year. A spring planting is ready to start harvesting by early summer, and a summer planting is ready from September on.

Some people say those early plantings must be harvested as soon as the roots are fully swollen or they'll turn old and woody. 'Tain't so. They do get old, but I find that with good growing conditions, those spring plantings stay tasty and tender right through fall.

TWO VEGETABLES FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

Another nice thing about growing beets is that they really are two savory vegetables in one. You have those red orbs hiking themselves half out of the ground, and topping them are the beet greens.

Beets greens are similar to Swiss chard in flavour, texture and appearance, which is no surprise: Beets and Swiss chard (sometimes called leaf beet) are botanically the same species. And they're both in the same family as spinach, too.

THE SEED IS A FRUIT

One not-so-nice thing about growing beets is getting the plants up and growing. Beet seeds seem to germinate erratically, even under good growing conditions.

Temperature is not usually a problem because, although beets sprout best at 85 degrees Fahrenheit, they sprout pretty well even down to 50 degrees. (Germination is poor above 95 degrees.)

Some gardeners ensure a good stand of plants by sowing the seeds in flats and then transplanting (carefully!) the small seedlings. My tack is to just sow the seeds per the directions on the seed packet, then don't think about them except to water if the soil is turning dry. Eventually, enough come up.

Once the plants are up, they invariably are overcrowded. That's because each beet seed is actually a fruit containing one to four, or more, seeds.

When you have thinned out your beets and they're growing well, they need little care. They have potential insect and disease pests, but none usually worth noting in a backyard garden.

VARIETY IN Colour, SHAPE, Flavour

Beets started out as a white-rooted wild plant growing along the shores of the Mediterranean. The plant was used by the ancients mostly for medicinal purposes. For instance, Pliny the Elder, a Roman writing in the first century, recommended beets as an antidote for garlic breath. Sometime between then and the 16th century, beets became cultivated, turned red and began to be enjoyed as a vegetable.

Such an ancient plant has, as might be expected, given rise to many varieties. Now, you can find cylindrical beets (Formanova), yellow beets (Burpee's Golden), beets whose insides have alternating red and white concentric rings (Chioggia), even white varieties (Albino). And the varieties also differ in flavour. For instance, Chioggia and most cylindrical varieties produce beets with an "earthy" taste from geosmin, which can be toned down with such condiments as vinegar, horseradish or mustard.

I grow the tasty and reliable variety Detroit Dark Red (low in geosmin), whose origin, in 1892, recalls a time when Detroit was better known for vegetables than for making automobiles.

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