If you only know beets as canned additions to a salad bar, fresh ones roasted in the oven can be a revelation. If you have never tasted tender young beet greens, spring is the time to savor their earthy flavor in a salad. Follow them up with baby beets, no bigger than radishes. Are you put off by the red juice? There are yellow, white and even striped varieties.
Beets originated in the Mediterranean region, where the Romans ate their greens. By the end of the Middle Ages, strains of Beta vulgaris bred for swollen, edible taproots had spread through Europe and entered the cuisine.Over the next few centuries, farmers developed a type with huge roots of 20 pounds or more -- known in German as mangel-wurzel, or "scarcity root" -- which was fed to livestock, as well as the sugar beet that is now a major crop in many countries. Another variation went the other way: Swiss chard is a kind of Beta vulgaris grown for its colorfully veined, tasty leaves.
As Europeans came to the U.S., they brought beets and beet recipes with them. "They were widespread in American cooking going at least back to 1810 or 1820," says Jeremiah Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo.
Beets are a cool-season crop, best sown in the garden two to four weeks before the last frost is expected (about mid-May in Chicago), according to Susan Jellinek, horticulturist for Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen Inc., the New Jersey-based U.S. division of the British seed company. Sow them two or three times, a week or two apart, for beets until summer's heat causes the plants to bolt and the greens to turn bitter. Eat (or pickle) the beets before they grow so big they get woody. And sow a second crop in late summer for beets until frost.
Beets need full sun and a well-drained soil free of roots and rocks, according to Erica Renaud, manager for the Santa Fe research farm of Seeds of Change, an organic seed company. "Compost is always a good thing," says Jellinek, adding that you should dig it in well before sowing the seeds.
Beet seeds usually come in a little cluster, which is actually a dried fruit, says Nancy Clifton, plant information manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. The cluster should be sown directly in loose, prepared soil in spring. It's not a good idea to start beets indoors, Clifton says, because they resent transplanting; the roots may be malformed. Water them well.
The Burpee catalog suggests that you mix beet seeds with fast-sprouting radish seeds to mark the rows.
Jellinek recommends side-dressing the plants with a balanced fertilizer, such as 8-8-8, scratched into the soil around the plant so it percolates down to the root zone.
There may be more than one vital seed in a cluster, Clifton says, so the beets likely will need to be thinned. That's a good thing; the tender young greens are great in salads, and "it's a great time to eat the little beets," Clifton says.
Beet greens contain Vitamins A and C and more iron and minerals than spinach, according to Renaud. The roots are rich in potassium and vitamins.
You can harvest up to 1/3 of the greens of a plant without harming the root, Renaud says. Older beet greens can be steamed or added to soups. The roots can be boiled or steamed, sliced and used in salads.
The plants are most productive at temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees, Renaud says. As temperatures rise, the beet growth slows down, and eventually the plants will bolt. They will bolt quicker if the plants don't get enough water, according to Renaud.
Most varieties take 50 to 65 days for the roots to reach full size.
Many beet cultivars entered the seed market in the 19th Century, and they have been followed by an extensive array of 20th Century hybrids.
`Bull's Blood' is a 19th Century cultivar grown chiefly for its stunning burgundy leaves. It also bears tasty roots, if they are harvested young.
`Chioggia' is an old cultivar, named for Chioggia, Italy, near Venice. It entered the U.S. seed market in the 1860s courtesy of Italian immigrants, according to Gettle. Sliced, the root displays concentric rings of red and pink flesh.
It has a mild flavor: "People who don't like other beets like `Chioggia,'" Gettle says.
`Rouge Crapaudine' is a French cultivar dating back at least to the 17th Century, according to Barbara Wilde, who runs a Paris-based business, L'Atelier Vert, to sell French seeds and gardening supplies over the Internet.
It is a long, gnarly root with an almost black skin, and is sold in French markets already roasted.
White beets, such as the Dutch heirloom Albina verduna, tend to be sweeter, says Gettle. And of course, they don't stain like red beets do.
Golden beets are a kind of mangel, the large beets grown for cattle feed, Gettle says. But dug young, cultivars such as `Burpee's Golden' are tender and mild.
Whether you let the natural sweetness of beets stand on its own, or play against it by pickling or tossing beets in a simple vinaigrette, they are one of spring's delights.
Where to find them
Here are a few catalog sources for beet seeds:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, call 417-924-8917, or see rareseeds.com
Burpee Seeds and Plants, 800-888-1447, or see burpee.com
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, 860-567-6086, or see kitchengardenseeds.co
L'Atelier Vert -- Everything French Gardening, frenchgardening.com.
Park Seed Co. , 800-213-0076, or see parkseed.com
Seed Savers Exchange, 563-382-5990, or see seedsaversexchange.org.
Seeds of Change, 888-762-7333, or see seedsofchange.com
Territorial Seed Co., 541-942-9547; or see territorial-seed.com
Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen Inc., 800-274-7333 or see seeds.thompson-morgan.com/usCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun