Think of a multitasking vegetable, and the beet comes to mind. A large yellow member of the beet family known as the mangel-wurzel is used as calorie-dense cattle food. Sugar beets provide table sugar and are also used to produce biofuels. The common garden beet produces both roots and tops that are colorful, tasty and nutritious.
The beet (Beta vulgaris) has been used as a food crop for centuries. Beets grew wild in areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and Asia Minor, and native people harvested and ate the greens. The root later gained a reputation as a medicinal herb. During the 1800s, French chefs began using the roots regularly in recipes. By 1828, Americans had adopted a fondness for beets, and like today’s gardeners, had four varieties available to them via seed catalogs. Today there are a number of varieties on the market, some of which (Bull’s Blood, for example) date back to these early choices.
Today, beets aren’t normally considered “health food,” but a recent article in the journal Applied Physiology details cardiovascular benefits from eating beets and drinking beet juice. Studies show that consuming small amounts of beet juice daily dilates blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure. Eating beets also improves the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to cells. Athletes who regularly drank beet juice increased their exercise capacity by 16 percent, and non-athletes experienced less fatigue during routine daily exercise. If fitness is a goal, learn to love beets.
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Beets also are rich in vitamins A and C, and, like many root vegetables, contain essential minerals such as calcium, iron, manganese, potassium, magnesium and phosphorous. Beet greens contain a higher iron content than spinach. Add to this the high fiber content of the root, and beets look as much like a “miracle food” as does any more exotic fruit or vegetable. The more colorful beets – those that are crimson red or gold – contain higher levels of A, C and antioxidants.
Fresh beets are available as spring and fall crops, as the plant thrives in cool weather. Beets also require a mere two months’ growing season, so it is possible for the home gardener to produce two crops of these tasty vegetables in one growing year. Beets can be sown directly into a sunny garden location two or three weeks before the last frost date in the spring. Beet “seed” is actually a pod containing a collection of tiny seeds, so space them 6 to 8 inches apart in the row. As they germinate, thin the clusters that emerge down to one plant per space. The tiny plants are edible, and after the root end is cleaned and trimmed, can be eaten like other sprouts.
Beets need well-worked, loose soil in order to produce large, attractive roots. Clay soils will need ample cultivation as well as copious amounts of organic matter worked in; keeping the plants well-mulched with straw, hay or shredded leaves will also help keep the soil loose. For the best root development, use a root-boosting, low-nitrogen fertilizer; if greens are your preference, then use a balanced fertilizer such as 12-12-12. Keep the rows weeded and clean; weeds growing next to beets can tangle with and distort the shape of the beet root as well as rob the plant of nutrients.
Beets can be harvested as soon as the roots begin to form a ball up to the recommended 55 – 60 days. If the roots are left in the ground too long, or if the weather turns hot and dry, the roots may turn woody.
Beets can be steamed, baked, slivered thinly and fried like potato chips, grated and added to your favorite hash recipe to make “Red Flannel” hash, added to soup (borscht is a traditional Russian beet soup), pickled, or juiced with a juicer, blender or steam extractor. Gold beets won’t “bleed” and stain food storage containers and tablecloths the way the red varieties do, and have a less earthy flavor than do the reds. Beet greens are generally steamed or chopped finely and used in place of spinach in salads.
You can’t beat beets for flavor, nutrition and economy. Add a few rows to your garden this year, and harvest the benefits.