Beets are one of those vegetables that take me back to childhood. My Aunt Sarah and Uncle Tom grew them. At their house, no summer meal was complete without a side of cold pickled beets. My aunt and uncle were carrying on a tradition that started more than 4000 years ago. That’s when the people that know about these things believe beets were first cultivated and consumed in the areas around the Mediterranean sea. These early beet lovers ate the roots and the tops. In fact, they ate beet greens until spinach was introduced around AD 850. The Romans used beets as a food staple. They also used them to dye their clothes, cure their constipation and spice up their love lives (they considered beets an aphrodisiac). Since the Romans ate them, they spread to Europe. Most European countries developed their own recipes that embraced the beet (think borsch). And, thanks to Napoleon, they also grew them to make sugar. However, with all of that history, I still can’t get anyone at my house to eat them except me.
Growing – There are two types of beets regularly grown in the home garden; var flaviscens and var vulgaris. Flaviscens is the botanical name for chard. Many people do not realize that chard is actually a beet that has been developed more for its stem and leaves than for its roots. Vulgaris is what the majority of us think of when we think about beets. Most of the beets grown in the home garden have a characteristic, deep red bulb (Bull’s Blood). However, there are varieties available that are white (Albino), yellow (Golden) and striped (Chioggia).
Beets can be grown almost year round in gardens a little further north than mine. However, they prefer cooler temperatures and grow best when the air temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees. Since it gets so hot here I confine my beet production to the fall and early spring garden. Around mid- September, I plant my first row of beets. I often add another row in October, November and December (they can survive all but the worst freezes that Zone 9 can throw at them). This succession planting will keep me in beets right up to March. To plant, I dig a shallow furrow with my trusty Cobrahead Hand Hoe, scatter the seeds, cover and water. Within a few days, they sprout. In fact, so many little plants pop up that I am convinced they have about a 110% germination rate!
Once the true leaves form, I start thinning to about 4” apart. They will mature in 45-70 days depending on variety. For best production, keep your beats evenly moist throughout their lifecycle. Beets will stop growing at whatever size they are at if the soil is allowed to dry out. Harvest your beets when they are 1 ½” to 2” in diameter. If beets get too big they become very fibrous and are not fit to eat.
Pickled Beets – Pickled beets are a family tradition at our house. My grandparents married in 1916 and I am sure my grandmother started making them for my “Pa” around that time. So, at least someone in my family has been enjoying pickled beets for the past 100 years. My grandmother taught my mother to make them and my mother has now taught me. Here’s how we do it:
Remove tops from approximately 12 beets. Leave 1” of top on the root. This will prevent red beets from “bleeding” as much when you boil them. Place the beets in a large pan and bring to a boil. Boil until the beets are soft. Their skins will wrinkle when they are ready. Drain and run cold water over them to cool. Take the beets in your hand and gently squeeze. This will force the beet out of its skin. Remove any stubborn skin with a knife. While the skinless beets are cooling combine the following ingredients into a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
2 cups vinegar
1 cup water
¼ cup sugar
1 Heaping tablespoon of salt
6 whole cloves (optional)
Once the mixture boils, reduce heat to simmer. Cut beets into ¼” slices and place in jars. Pour the vinegar mixture into the jars until it just covers the beets. Seal the jars and place in the refrigerator.