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Beets: Read all about ’em!

harvested and cleaned beet plantsBeets are a food source that seems almost too good to be true. This root crop is super-easy to grow, and the produce adds bright color and delicious sweet flavors to meals. Beets are packed with so many nutrients they should be required eating! The globes and green tops are rich in vitamin C, folate, manganese, magnesium, potassium, iron, fiber, and loads of other compounds that fight cancer and heart disease.

Gardeners have many open-pollinated and hybrid varieties to choose from, with several sizes, colors and types available. There are shades of reds and purples, orange/yellow, and white with red stripes. Beets come in several shapes, including round, oblong or cylindrical, and they mature in sizes from miniature (silver-dollar diameter) to 3-inch globes.

Beets can be prepared in countless ways: raw (juiced or in salads); cooked (steamed, boiled, roasted); and preserved (canned or pickled). Both the green, leafy tops and the roots (the round bulbous part) are edible and are packed with nutrients. Snip the green tops and rinse in water, then prepare the same way as other edible greens like chard or spinach, by juicing, steaming, or tossing into casseroles and soups to add color and flavor.

Even amateur beet gardeners will enjoy bountiful produce with nearly no effort. Beets can be planted from seed or starter plants. The seeds are actually clusters of seeds within dried fruits. They should be planted in well-drained but moist soil, and spaced in rows a minimum of 12 inches apart. Plant seeds 1/2 inch into the soil, then thin to 3 or 4 inches apart, to allow room for the roots to expand. Beets do like a lot of fertilizer. One application of fertilizer when the tops are around 4 inches tall. The tops can be snipped for meals before the roots are developed, as long as 1/3 of the greens are left intact until root harvest.

Fresh beets are usually available year-round in the grocery, but they’re a great home garden staple, since they can be planted nearly a month before the last frost is anticipated, and they will grow well into fall. If you space the seed planting throughout the summer, you can spread out the harvesting over several months. You can gauge the maturity of the root by sight: they stick up out of the soil enough to see the diameter (don’t let them grow larger than 3 inches) and you can poke the top to test the firmness. If they’re ripe, you simply grab the tops and pull them out of the ground.

Beets can be stored in a root cellar for up to a couple of months, or kept in sawdust or other dry packing material in a cool, dry place long past the garden’s last warm days.

Miniature round beets can be prepared whole, and larger beets can be sliced or diced for serving. Fans of pickled beets know that this veggie is the ideal complement to tangy pickling seasonings. Sliced beets and onions in either a sweet juice or a traditional sour brine are popular with all ages, because the vegetable keeps its crunch and dense texture.

Beet borscht is a Russian soup that is traditionally served cold with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkle of dill on top. It makes a great summertime appetizer because of its gorgeous pink color and refreshing flavor.

Beets and onions both caramelize when roasted, releasing their sugars and giving them a gorgeous outer glaze and striking savory and sweet flavor. It makes an excellent side dish for turkey or lamb meals.

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