LONGMONT – While some march to the beat of their own drum, I’d like to drum up support for the beet. Fans have been rooting for this vegetable to be crowned king of the garden, and this year, our dreams are realized: 2018 is the Year of the Beet.
The National Garden Bureau, ngb.org/year-of-the-beet, announced the honor for the humble plant, whose origins are as ancient as civilization. Beets grow wild throughout the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and in the Near East. But their origins are believed to be in the Mediterranean, and were spread by prehistoric peoples to far-flung locations.
Researchers have evidence that humans enjoyed beetroot dating back to neolithic times in the Netherlands and in the Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, during the Third Dynasty (third millennium BC). Assyrian texts indicate that Mesopotamian peoples used beetroots at that time.
Past Presidents might not have like beets but ancient Greeks revered it, offering the shapely root to the god Apollo and considering it to be worth its weight in silver. Beets were prized as medicinal before enjoyed as a culinary staple and used to dress wounds, as a laxative, and a fever cure.
The first records of beets cultivated for an edible, fleshy root occurred in Germany in 1558, although its acceptance as a culinary vegetable remained elusive for several hundred more years. Improvements on its gastronomic appeal led to the carrot-like taproot being enlarged and transformed into the bulbous form we know today.
Beets are a nutrition powerhouse, packed with fiber, vitamins A and C, antioxidants, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and folic acid. They’re an excellent source of iron, containing more than most vegetables. But beets are often maligned due to their “earthy” taste, the most common complaint made against the plant.
This is caused by geosmin, an organic compound that lends the earthy flavor to beets and produces the fresh soil scent following rain. The combination of sweet and earthy flavor delights many; others are less than thrilled.
Beets are grown as spring or fall annuals and mature in 50 to 95 days. Sow seeds shallowly, about one-quarter of an inch deep and one-to-two inch apart. What you sow are actually clusters of three to four seeds, so if you want plump beetroot, plan to thin the plants. Left crowded, beets won’t develop a bulbous bottom, but you can still enjoy the delicious, nutritious leaves.
Thin seedlings to three-inches apart when they’re one-to-two inches tall, tossing the thinned plants into a salad. Keep the seeds and plants evenly moist without water logging. Once the roots are about two-inches in diameter, harvest by gently pulling the plant from the soil. Left to get much larger risks having them turn woody and less sweet.
Ready to grow this darling of the garden? Try Avalanche, an All -America Selection that’s a gorgeous, delicious white beet. This year I’m trying Merlin, a red beet with improved sugar and suppressed geosmin. Heirloom varieties like Bull’s Blood, Detroit Dark Red, or Chioggia are excellent red beets, while Touchstone Gold or Golden are tired and true yellows.
If you prefer just beet leaves, Early Wonder Tall Top and Fresh Start a good choices, although beet tops from any variety are usually tasty.
Round, cylindrical, petite, or blocky – there’s a beet out there to please your pallet. Grow some in your garden year in celebration of this year’s honoree.
By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.