The National Garden Bureau has named the beet as “the vegetable of the year.” The humble beet is not even in the top 20 list of everyone’s favorite veggies. In fact, it comes in at a lowly rank of 25 in the Rankers’ online poll. Personally, I have not found the earthy taste of beets very appealing. However, today’s hybrid beets have been bred to have a milder and sweeter flavor.
Cultivation of the table beet dates back to ancient times when ancient Greeks grew them for their leaves instead of the roots. They believed beets were an aphrodisiac, and surprisingly there is some scientific evidence to support this. Beets contain high levels of boron, which has been shown to increase levels of sex hormones in the body. The ancient Romans ate beet roots primarily for medicinal reasons, such as curing a fever. These early table beet roots were long and white, more closely resembling a turnip. The squat, bulbous red roots that we associate with table beets today appeared in Europe sometime during the 16th or 17th century.
Today’s table beet is touted as a “superfood” that is rich in antioxidants and containing more iron and natural sugar that most vegetables. It is also high in fiber, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, folic acid and vitamins A and C. Beet juice is even being sold as a natural energy drink. The red pigment in beets is called betalain and is used for coloring foods such as tomato paste, jam, jelly, candy and ice cream.
Classic rounded, dark red beets such as ‘Detroit Dark Red ’ or the newer ‘Ruby Queen’ are the most familiar, but diverse options are also available. ‘Chioggia’ is an Italian heirloom with unique red-and-white concentric rings of sweet, tender flesh. ‘Golden’ is an heirloom from the 1920s with golden orange roots and tasty greens. ‘Avalanche’ is an All America Selection with pure white, sweet, mild flavored roots. ‘Merlin’ is a hybrid beet bred to have a high sugar content, exceptional flavor, choice greens, and 2- to 3-inch diameter uniform roots.
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Beets are fairly easy to grow, but there are some tricks to success. The first is preparing the soil properly. Beets prosper when the soil is sandy or loamy and slightly alkaline. They do not grow well in rocky or heavy soils.
The second trick is direct seeding them early enough in the season when soil and air temperatures are still fairly cool. Sow the seed about 30 days before the average last frost date or when the soil reaches and stays above 50 degrees and the prevailing air temperature is above 40 degrees.
The third trick is getting the seed to germinate. If you plant a “beet seed,” you are actually planting a cluster of 2 to 5 seeds inside a thick seed coat. Many gardeners find that pre-soaking seed clusters in a dish of warm water for 12 hours aids in germination. After soaking, the seed clusters are planted 1 to 2 inches apart directly in the soil. Note that some companies have separated the beet seeds from the seed-ball and sell individual seeds. This allows for easier germination and greater precision when planting.
The fourth trick is to thin the seedlings to give the roots room to grow. Plants should be 3 to 4 inches apart if you plan to harvest the roots when they are small and tender, or 6 inches apart for larger roots. Because more than one seedling may germinate from the same seed cluster, cut out instead of pulling seedlings to reach the desired spacing.
The final trick is keeping the soil evenly moist after planting and during the growing season.
If you like beets, plan on celebrating the Year of the Beet by planting some this spring!
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.