April is our first full month in the Spring season and the pace is picking up in the vegetable garden and in the orchard. This month we will generally complete the transition from our cool season
plants to our warm season plants. In central Texas, we know that really warm temperatures are not far off. Beets are definitely on the menu and we will be doing our final harvest this month.
Our garden beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris) originated from the wild form which grew in North Africa and along Asian and European seashores. The early beets were harvested for their leaves rather than for their roots. Ancient Romans were among the first noted to cultivate beets for their roots as well as their leaves. Today, most people think of beets as a root crop but beet leaves still are an excellent vegetable in their own right. Beets are related to Swiss chard and spinach also cultivated for their leaves and to quinoa which is harvested for its seeds.
Beets can be planted in our area in the Spring and in the Fall. Because Summer temperatures seem to come on so quickly, we most often plant beets in the Fall and into early Winter. Beets prefer a deep well drained soil with a pH of 6.8 to 8. They like moderate fertility but do need boron as a trace element to grow well . Good levels of organic matter in garden soil will usually provide adequate boron. The feeder roots can grow up to 3 feet deep in really good soil. Beets are usually direct seeded and, like most root crops, do not transplant well. The beet “seed” is actually a cluster of single seeded fruits and therefore each often sprouts multiple seedlings per planted “seed”. The resultant seedlings should be thinned to 1 to 2 inches apart. We remove the extra seedlings by cutting or pinching them off at soil level so as to not disturb the remaining plants. The thinnings make an excellent delicate salad green. Like a lot of our cool season vegetables, we ordinarily do not have any significant pest or disease problems with beets and rarely apply any pesticides.
Beet varieties can be red, gold, white and even striped. They can be round, flattened or cylinder shaped like a carrot. The sugar beet variety forms a very large root usually grown commercially to process into table sugar. We’ve planted a number of different varieties over the years but most often grow the heirloom Detroit Dark Red which is readily available from lots of sources.
Beet roots can be harvested whenever they get to an appropriate size – usually 1 1/2 inches and up to 3 inches. In our mild winters, beets can be left in the ground until needed but will need to be harvested before really warm temperatures arrive. Beets can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks after harvest. Remove the tops a half inch above the beet and trim the long taproot. Washed beets should be completely dried before storage. The beet leaves can be washed, dried and stored like other greens.
Beets are an excellent source of folate and a very good source of manganese, potassium and copper. They are also a good source of dietary fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin C, iron and vitamin B6. The red color in beets from betalins are particularly good antioxidant and antiinflammatory nutrients. Some individuals (like me) don’t metabolize the red coloring well resulting in much of the color just passing through which is not a problem but can be startling when going to the restroom.
Young beet leaves are great raw in a salad while mature leaves are usually prepared as a cooked green and substitute well for chard or spinach. Raw beets can be grated into a salad and also make a nice juice. Rather than peeling raw beets (which can be messy as they tend to stain) we most often boil or bake the whole root and after cooling, the skins just slip right off. The cleaned beets can then be sliced and roasted again with a honey or balsamic glaze. They can also be sautéed in butter or olive oil until slightly caramelized. In Eastern Europe in particular, beets are a main ingredient in hearty soups and stews of which borscht is a well known variety. Beets also pickle well – think Harvard beets. In Australia, beets are standard fare on hamburgers. Cooked beets can also be processed into an eye catching hummus or used as an added ingredient to color fresh pasta. Pureed beets can be added to chocolate cake for an added flavor layer as well as wonderful moistness. With their relatively high sugar content and dark red color, it is only natural that some folks also ferment beets into a kind of wine – I’ve not tried this but it looks pretty.
This no fuss vegetable always has a place in our cool season garden and I recommend that all vegetable gardeners give them a try.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor