Photo courtesy of Cornell University
The Beet Goes On
Beets are one of those hardy vegetables (like parsnips, salsify, and carrots) that you can leave in the ground and harvest during winter. They stay ready for the kitchen as long as they don’t freeze. I once visited the garden maintained by the PBS show "The Victory Garden" in Boston on a day in mid-winter when the cold was doubled by wet air. Kip, the gardener, pulled up big beets while his fingers turned blue and my toes froze.
In such cold climates, beets need protection over the winter. If a heap of dry leaves covered with a tarp will keep the ground open in your climate, as they did in the Victory Garden, you can have beets all winter. If not leaves, cover the bed with bales of straw and tip the bales out of the way, dig beets, and tip the bales back. In a warmer climate, a hoop house or a tunnel will protect the crop.
Garden beets are biennials (they have a two-year life cycle). You start them from seeds in spring, the young plants make a taproot and a clump of leaves, the taproot gains girth during the growing season, then frost kills the leaves and the taproot puts on its cap for a long winter nap. In spring, the taproot wakes up, sends up leaves, then a flower stalk that makes a cloud of nondescript flowers. The finale is a crop of seeds to start next year’s show.
Beets are civilized. They were domesticated here and there around the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago. The wild ancestor had a taproot that did not know how to be a beet. Gardeners coaxed it to swell but couldn’t overcome its biennial habit. So we grow it as an annual. In cold climates we plant it in spring and harvest the beets in fall. In climates that are hot in the growing season, we sow the seeds in fall, grow the plants over the winter, and harvest the crop in spring.
There are many cultivars of domestic beets. They taste like beets, grow in different sizes and shapes and stain your cutting board and hands purple, unless they’re yellow or white. To reduce stains, bake the beets whole and then peel them.
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