Down to Earth: The Beet and Chard

Beta vulgaris

Beets are definitely one of those vegetables that inspire strong opinions. It is unfortunate that most people’s first impression of beets are those that come out of tin cans. But beets are incredibly powerful vegetables; highly nutritious, versatile and yes, delicious. If you are persistent about saying beets suck, try baby beets cooked in butter. If that doesn’t turn you into a fan of beets, you are probably against pleasure and un-savable.

For those of you who may despise beets it would probably horrify you to know that half the world’s sugar comes from beets instead of sugar cane. Beet consumption dates back to at least the ancient Greek empire, and native to the Mediterranean region, they were probably consumed even farther back.

Beets are really easy to grow if you get a few things correct: first of all beet roots go deep. Perhaps you have measured a beautiful fresh beet and seen how deep the tips of the taproot can go (up to 3 or 4 feet). So when you dig your beds out, dig deep. Don’t put an excess of nitrogenous amendments in the soil like chicken manure (unless it is full matured and aged, and still be sparing). Like many root crops, beets don’t need rich soils and if too much nitrogen is in the soil you will get a lot of green growth, but no…er…beets. But they do require some phosphorus. Use bone meal or kelp meal upon planting and if you feed, use soluble kelp meal and compost tea. But don’t go crazy. Often it is trying too hard that makes one unsuccessful with beets. However, as with MANY crops, a good protective layer of mulch and compost will slowly feed your beets and keep the roots cool, which they like.

When you first start beets, you plant them from seed, directly into the ground. As they germinate, thin seedlings to the recommended spacing on the seed packet (different varieties have different mature dimensions). Whatever you do, don’t cram them. You will get the best beets from well-spaced plants with lots of room to grow. Oh, and those seedlings you thinned: don’t throw them away. People pay lots of money for salads with “microgreens” in them, and essentially your thinned seedlings are microgreens. Eat them, you fool.

Also, plant them in full sun, starting in the fall. October is about the best time to start, but don’t be afraid to try getting some going earlier. I have seen short season varieties harvested in late August or early September.  You can keep planting successions of beets throughout the season until it gets hot. The closer you get to summer, the shorter the maturing time should be. Picking them young will give you more time too. And the young ones are actually better tasting than the gigantic ones you are so proud of getting to enormous dimensions.

Some beets will TELL you when they are ready without all this fuss.

When is the beet ready to eat? You can just dig up one and see, but I got a better idea for you. Remember that seed packet you had when you planted them? Well, normally good reputable seed companies list how many days a crop will take under sufficient circumstances to mature. Oh snap! You mean the answers are right there? Yup. More or less. Once you arrive at the time the seed packet says it should take, dig one up. If you did everything right, they WILL be ready. If not, you may have prepared the soil improperly or planted in too much shade. Some beets will TELL you when they are ready without all this fuss.

There are many many things you can do with beets, including cooking them in butter as I mentioned above. They are also delicious just roasted in the oven.

An old Russian tradition is to make beet kvass: a fermented beet beverage. Sounds strange, maybe even gross? Actually it’s really good and in my opinion, tastier than kombucha which everyone seems to be drinking these days. Take a beet, chop it up into 1/2 inch chunks, and put into a quart jar with non-chlorinated water, a dash of salt, and maybe a little whey if you have some (if you don’t just use a little more salt and time). Let sit for a few days, sealed in the jar with a little head space at the top. Eventually it will carbonate and become the delicious and incredibly nutritious tonic that improves digestion, supplies minerals, and gives a little boost of energy.
Watch this crazy guy tell you how to make your own beet kvass at home.

Swiss Chard is different. Though technically it is a beet, the aim here is growing the plant for the leaves. Nitrogen produces vegetative growth while phosphorus produces more root and reproductive growth. So you can fertilize your chard like you would your lettuce. Only, chad will be more forgiving and can really handle less fertile soils. In fact, chard is one of the easiest things to grow. Just beware how big they get. They do best in full sun, but some shade is tolerable. Also, like the beet, they are best planted from seed starting in the fall.

Swiss chard can be eaten raw or cooked; like spinach, too much raw chard can detract from it’s nutritional benefits. But the normal serving of chard is quite fine, especially if mixed in with all those other amazing greens the cool season produces. The stems are often overlooked. They make a great asparagus substitute, and with the many varieties now popular in seed catalogs, there are some extremely beautiful colors to play with.

When harvesting Swiss chard you can either cut until about a few inches from the ground (if you need a lot) or just harvest with a knife one leaf at a time. Plants will continue to produce most of the winter. Some people plant successionally anyway if they want to get young, fresh tender plants. Feed with fish emulsion or kelp and with compost tea. If you don’t feed them much, they will probably not complain much, but they will look and taste even greater with some care.

I love to sautee Swiss chard or steam in a bamboo steamer. Like spinach, a lot of chard shrinks down to just a tiny serving, so if you have lots of people to feed, overshoot.

If you love Indian food, check out this video that includes a Swiss Chard recipe.

Territorial Seed Company has a great selection of beets. Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds has some really cool heirlooms that everyone should try. Sustainable Seed Company has a decent selection of Swiss chard varieties.

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3 thoughts on “Down to Earth: The Beet and Chard

    • They can take SOME cold. The advice I give is usually for our climate. I am not familiar with the details of your climate, but most mild climate places plant beets in fall/winter.

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