I’m surprised beets need some public relations assistance, but they don’t appear to enjoy the popularity they deserve.
From a health point of view, they have been described as nutritional powerhouses, packing a full punch high in folate, manganese, potassium, fiber, vitamin C, tryptophan, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus — so, not a vegetable one should ignore. Even the pigment (betacyanin) that gives beets their gorgeous, rich color is a powerful disease-fighting antioxidant. Plus, every bit of them is edible, and actually the greens (best when tender and young) are as nutritious as, or more nutritious than, the beet roots — the portion that grows below the ground.
Beets are an easy-to-grow, fairly quickly maturing crop. The best site is a sunny one, although they will tolerate some dappled shade or half-day sun. They like rich, well-drained soil free of rocks and lumps. Routt County clay needs to be pulverized and enriched with compost to a depth of at least 8 inches.
Seeds can be sown early in spring and again every two weeks or so to enjoy an ongoing summer supply. Beet seeds are a compound of several individual seeds, actually, and easy to plant but a bit harder to thin when the time comes as several come up in the same place. Plant to a depth of half an inch and 1 inch apart, and keep the seed bed moist from the start through to when the seedlings emerge.
Thin seedlings to 2 to 3 inches apart (enough to give maturing roots space to grow) when they are 2 to 3 inches tall, and add these to your salads, of course.
At this point, continue to water well so the beets will be tender, and weed regularly. The faster the beets mature, the more tender they are, so giving them excellent soil, steady moisture, no weeds to compete with and room to grow will produce lovely little beets to savor. When you deduce they have reached the perfect diameter (think golf balls, not baseballs) it is time to harvest, as when they get too big, they become hard and woody and lose their appeal. Beets will tolerate a light frost, and certainly cool weather makes them taste even sweeter.
Beets come plain red (Detroit dark red) or yellow-gold (golden), white (albina verduna) or red and white candy-striped (chioggia). To maintain their high nutrient value and even just because they retain their flavor better this way, they are best roasted. Roast with other root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, onions) or solo. A favorite way in our kitchen is chef Mark Bittman’s method: Wash beets, leave about one inch of their tops on (to minimize bleeding), wrap individually in foil, place them on a baking sheet, cook about 45 minutes (or until tender), cool, peel and slip off the skin, slice, drizzle with butter or squeeze of lemon. Additionally, slice or shave them paper-thin and raw into salads or soups, steam or boil them whole, pickle them, can them, freeze them — versatile, yes, but simple is best.
Beets are primordial, humble, singular in taste and truly have no equal in the vegetable world.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener with the Routt County Extension Office. Questions? Call 879-0825.