Garden Notes: Storied red beets thrive in mild spring temperatures

Red beets look like radishes on steroids. They’re a necessity when Easter preparations are in full swing. Beets create the vibrant scarlet hue that pickled eggs sport, as do some Easter basket eggs dyed pink, red or purple. Unless the Easter basket eggs are plastic — that’s another story.

Red Beets are native to the easy living zones around the Mediterranean. At first, they were used as a spicy green. (Swiss chard is a cousin.) But as they made their way north, where vegetables needed to hold up against a long winter storage period, interest in the bulbs developed. They delivered taste, versatility and nutrition to hungry gardeners and their families. Red beets were known in Germany as early as 1550, and eventually, Europeans brought red beet seeds to America.

Thomas Jefferson calculated his household needed five bushels of beets to see them through the winter months. He planted red beets in the same garden row every year from 1809 to 1824. Today, we’d frown on his horticultural practices, but if you want to conduct a Jeffersonian experiment, The Shop at Monticello sells Early Blood Turnip-rooted Beet Seeds, the variety Jefferson cultivated.

At Hines Feed Store in Hollidaysburg, you can choose from a variety of red beet seeds. They carry Detroit Dark Red, Lutz Green Leaf and Cylindra. Beet seed is 95 cents an ounce, (about 1,600 seeds). Most home gardeners buy half an ounce. Even so, that’s a lot of seeds.

The seeds look like Grape Nuts cereal. You can soak them over-night in lukewarm water to soften the cluster and make it easier for the seeds to germinate. Some people have been known to separate the tiny seeds by whacking them with a rolling pin. Neither method is necessary.

If you require instant gratification, mix radish seeds with your beet seeds. The radish roots loosen the soil, and make it easier for the red beets to develop. Radish germinates quickly and within a week or so, you’ll have little rosettes of green leaves marking your row. The radishes will be ready to harvest in 28 days.

Experts say over-planting and under-thinning will harm your crop. Under-thinning has never been my problem. I use scissors to thin the rows of red stemmed leaves, wash them and throw them whole into salads. But I can only eat so much salad. So on unhurried days, I pull small clumps of seedlings, separate them, and replant them at the end of a row. They grow just fine and for the moment the garden looks neat and productive.

AccuWeather predicts warm temperatures and a thundershower today. Plant seeds this morning and Mother Nature will water for you. Beets thrive in the mild spring temperatures, so choose a spot in full sun, and plant your beets and radishes about 1/2 inch deep. Provide an inch of water a week, sit back and consult your recipe books. You’re in for a taste of spring!

Contact Teresa Futrick