Rodney Dangerfield isn’t the only one who “don’t get no respect.”
Some members of the vegetable world “don’t get no respect” either. One of these is the lowly beet.
Even its scientific name, Beta vulgaris, seems a little disrespectful since the word vulgaris essentially means “common.” It probably means that it was common to Eurasia.
Taking the analysis a bit further, the bulbous root of the beet reminded someone of the Greek letter of the alphabet, ‘Beta’ hence the first part of its name.
Beets probably originated in the Mediterranean area and their use spread eastward in prehistoric times. They were also used often in the Near East. Wild beets grow widely over the Mediterranean lands, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Near East.
Ancient people probably ate only the greens using the root of the wild beet for medicinal purposes.
By the second and third centuries, the Romans cooked beet roots as a substitute for cabbage — another very common dish.
The Roman influence spread far with their empire and although the Roman Empire fell, its influence remains. Written English recipes of the 14th century refer to beet roots. In the 16th century, the improved beet was known as the Roman Beet and made its way into Northern Europe and France from Italy.
German literature from 1558 refers to eating beet roots.
Despite these early records, beet roots were not particularly popular in Europe until after 1800. English seed catalogs of the early 1800s listed two kinds — red and long red — and U.S. seedsmen listed only one. By 1828, four kinds were listed in the United States.
The Bassano variety, still grown today, was common in Italy more than a hundred years ago. The Flat Egyptian, an American cultivar in use today, was first grown around Boston about 1869. American companies introduced other varieties more recently.
Garden beet colors range from extremely dark purplish red, to bright vermilion, to white. Cut across the roots of many varieties and you find distinct light and dark rings, like a target. Garden beets generally grow in the traditional turnip shape but may also be elongated or cylindrical.
If you have carefully planted beets trying to space them apart you know that you still end up thinning them in the rows. Most beet seeds are multigerm and each seed germinates more than one plant. Seed them at six to 12 seeds per foot in rows one to two feet apart. If soil caking is a problem, plant seeds 1/4” deep and cover with compost, sand or vermiculite. Thin the plants to three to six inches apart as they grow to insure optimal production.
The tender young beet green “thinnings” make a nutritious and tasty meal.
While you can transplant beets, they perform best when direct seeded. Beets make attractive, edible borders for flowerbeds.
Beets grow best in deep, loose soil with even moisture throughout the growing season.
Dry spells reduce growth and cause stringy or tough beets, so start them early. Plant as early as mid-March if your soil is workable, but they do adapt to later planting. As they are frost tolerant, they are an excellent crop for mid-summer planting for a fall harvest. Plant beets between July 1 and Aug. 1 for a fall crop.
Fertilize plants at 3 to 4 week intervals and apply water regularly to encourage rapid growth and more tender plants.
Plants can be categorized by color or shape. Favorite varieties include MonoGerm, Pacemaker II hybrid, Earlisweet hybrid, Warrior, Detroit Dark Red, Golden Beet (yellow), Cylindra (oblong).
Varieties best suited to plant in summer for fall harvest are Earlisweet Hybrid, Pacemaker II, Detroit Dark Red.
Beets are a season-long crop.
Harvest greens anytime after the plant is about six inches tall or eat the plants you pull when thinning the crops. Use young plants whole or cook them as greens.
For optimum flavor, don’t try to win the big beet contest for your neighborhood. They are tastiest and most tender between 1 1/2 and 3 inches in diameter.
Over-mature beets lose tenderness and sweetness and become tough and stringy.