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Hamptons Life

Mar 16, 2018 5:19 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Hamptons Soil Is Ideal For Beets

Mar 18, 2018 6:21 PM

If you haven’t noticed by this point, growing things out here on the East End has a number of advantages. One of them is our generally sandy loam soil. This kind of soil is important for a number of root crops, and if you lived out here up until about 30 years ago, you remember how important potatoes were to the Long Island economy. The tuberous roots loved our soil that allowed them to grow unobstructed by large stones and rocks.

This kind of soil also is great for growing carrots and another true root crop, beets. And you’ve probably noticed that only until recently virtually all our carrots were bred to be orange. But carrots actually occur in a range of colors. Well, the same holds true for beets. Not all beets are red. There are orange beets, black beets, striped beets and marbled beets. And they’re not all globe shaped.

From its humble beginnings around the Mediterranean, the table beet (Beta vulgaris) has spread to all continents of the world—although information on Antarctica is surprisingly hard to come by.

Historically, beets have been consumed in many ways: medicinally, in ancient Rome; fresh (both the greens and the roots), in salads; made into soups (my absolutely favorite cold soup, borscht); pickled slices; and shredded, to name just a few. In some parts of the world, it is a menu staple.

Today, beets are popular as a processed product sold in stores, or as fresh greens that never even get to the root stage, and, of course, roots.

Yes, sugar beets, a rough, white, cone-shaped relative, are of the same family but are mostly grown commercially for sugar production, since sugar beets require much less water to produce than sugar cane and can be grown in temperate climates, as opposed to the tropics for the cane type of sugar.

Beets are high in fiber, vitamins A and C, and have more iron than most vegetables. They also are rich in antioxidants, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and folic acid. A red beet’s color comes from an antioxidant called betalain, which was used as an ingredient in makeup that produced the “red as a beet” coloring, and saying.

Betalain is an excellent source of red color pigment and can be used as a natural dye or food-coloring agent. It also can scare the daylights out of you—if you’re not aware that red beets can cause your urine to become blood red.

Today, beet juice is being marketed as a natural energy drink, powders are encapsulated as nutritional enhancements, and slices are being dried as chips. More conservative approaches, however, are to roast the beet or thinly slice it into a fresh beet salad.

Baby beet leaves have gained popularity as a salad green in recent years. Several varieties are produced specifically for the baby leaf market, such as Fresh Pak and Fresh Start.

As a superfood, beets are gaining popularity with all segments of the market. Merlin is a hybrid variety that is high in sugar content (12 to 15 percent brix) and excellent in fresh salads or juiced.

Although beets are a biennial crop (they flower in the second year of growth, then die), the roots can be grown in the summer vegetable garden in 50 to 95 days, depending on the variety and desired root size.

Plant seeds directly into the soil, ¼ to ½ inch deep, and 1 to 2 inches apart, in rows or blocks, and keep evenly moist to encourage germination. The seeds germinate best in warm soil, so don’t plant them too early—and if planting a fall crop, make sure you get germination while the soil is still warm, in late August through mid-September.

Beet “seeds” are actually little clusters of two to four seeds. Thin out (and be sure to eat) seedlings by pinching or snipping when they are 1 to 2 inches tall to encourage larger, well-shaped roots for harvest.

After thinning, plants should be spaced about 3 inches apart. No, the seedlings can’t be transplanted, because like most root crops they resent being moved once they germinate. They prefer slightly acidic soils with some boron content and limited nitrogen.

Beets like about 1 inch of water per week. They will tolerate cool temperatures, and when planted as a fall crop they can be left in the ground until November. The mature roots seem to sweeten when left in the ground in the fall. Once germinated, the plants are fairly frost tolerant, but leaving the roots in the ground for too long in the fall leaves them pithy and tough.

Roots are normally harvested either by gently pulling the tops or digging the roots when they are about 2½ to 3 inches in diameter (but can be harvested larger or smaller as desired). Root size is strongly determined by sowing density. Beets grow well in containers, also.

Beets are typically red to purple in color, both internally and externally, but some varieties are yellow or red with white rings internally, like Touchstone Gold and Chioggia Guardsmark. Avalanche, a recent All-America Selections winner, is pure white and very sweet. Traditionally, beets have fairly low sugar content, 6 to 8 percent brix, with some varieties are as high as 15 percent brix.

Table beets can come in multiple shapes. The most common is the globe shape (Ruby Queen), but they can also be cylindrical (like Cylindra, Alto or Rodina), top-shaped, flattened (Crosby Egyptian types) or blocky.

The most traditional variety in this country is Detroit Dark Red, which is traditionally used for canning and pickling, and Early Wonder Tall Top for greens and roots. Beetroots store well, both in the ground and after harvest, and every part of the plant is eaten, making them a gardener’s and kitchen favorite.

Beetroot has a reputation of having an “earthy” taste that some love and some don’t. New hybrid varieties have much milder flavor and higher sugar content, attracting a new and growing crowd of fans.

So, if you’ve tried beets before and they didn’t do it for you, maybe give them another chance and go for the newer varieties. It is a perfect food for the health conscious, as well as easy and fun to grow in Hamptons gardens. It could very well be the kale of the 21st century.

Keep growing!

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