In September, as temperatures finally fall below 100 degrees, our thoughts turn to the approaching fall season and the new array of vegetables that we can plant in our fall gardens. One of our favorite fall vegetables is the beet. This earthy root vegetable has been cultivated for thousands of years, originating in the Mediterranean. People have long eaten and enjoyed both the earthy roots as well as the tops, which are tasty greens. In fact, when beets were first discovered in the wild, they were more prized for their nutritious greens, rather than the beet root that we know today. Over time, humans selected for varieties that produced larger beet roots, as they are a great source of additional nutrients and sugars—something that was hard to come by in years past. Beets prove useful beyond the kitchen realm; they have been used to dye clothes, to make sugar, and to relieve digestive ailments.
Beets are a cool-season crop that can be grown in the fall and early spring in Central Texas. September and October are the best times to plant beets in Central Texas. They do not thrive in hot weather and do not tolerate hard freezes. You can choose from red, white, yellow, and even striped beet varieties (these are a hit with kids!). We recommend The Detroit Dark Red and Ruby Queen for the Austin area.
Beets require at least eight hours of direct sun each day and prefer deep, well-drained soils (sandy or loamy) to allow for healthy root growth. Before planting, till compost into your soil to increase fertility and improve soil health. Space seeds one to two inches apart and plant about one-half inch deep. Sprinkle water on the new seeds and water daily until seedlings have emerged. Once seedlings are established, you can reduce the frequency of watering to every couple of days. Several good companions for beets are: cabbage, leek, lettuce, onion and radish.
When maintaining your beets, thin out the seedlings gently with scissors leaving about three inches apart to allow for more room for the plants to mature. When thinning, wait until the greens are at least an inch or two long – t that way, you can eat them as you would the “baby” greens you might see at the store or farmers’ markets. Use the greens as you would in any recipe calling for baby greens.
Seven to eight weeks after planting, beets will be ready to harvest. The roots should be two to three inches in diameter. Gently dig around the root and pull it out, along with the attached greens. The roots can be stored in a cool, dark place. Cut off the greens from the beet root. Wrap the greens in a slightly moist paper or cloth towel, place in an unsealed plastic bag, and keep in the crisper of your refrigerator for up to 10 days.
To cook with beet greens:
Chop up the stems and greens, along with onion and garlic. Heat olive oil in a pan and then add stems and sauté for about four to five minutes on medium heat. Since the stems are more fibrous, it helps to cook them first to soften them. While they will never be as soft as the greens, they add more texture to the dish.
Add onions and sauté for another three to four minutes. Add garlic and sauté for a few minutes more, using care not to burn the garlic. Add a bit more oil or turn the heat down if too hot. Add the greens and let them cook for several minutes. Take care not to overcook the greens; they should be bright green when you remove them from the heat. Because most fresh beet greens are very tender, they do not need to cook long! Serve the greens as a side dish, or throw into an omelet or frittata.
To learn more about growing your own food and cooking seasonally, visit our events page for gardening and cooking classes: http://sustainablefoodcenter.org/get-involved/classes-events