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For beet lovers, there's lots of variation in taste and color to be grown

Jessica Walliser
| Friday, May 8, 2015, 6:03 p.m.
(From top) 'Red Ace,' 'Golden' and 'Chioggia' beets
Jessica Walliser
(From top) 'Red Ace,' 'Golden' and 'Chioggia' beets

I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, so, at every family gathering, there were pickled red beets. In fact, until I was an adult, I assumed pickling was the only way you could prepare beets.

Every summer, my mother canned red beets, filling the house with the earthy smell of the cooking roots. The fragrance drove me and my sister to the neighbor's, and I swore that I would never, ever eat a beet. Then I met my friend Chris.

One day while we were working together, she began talking about the beets growing in her garden and how much she enjoyed their flavor. I was curious as to how she prepared them, and when she detailed her recipe for roasting them, I thought I would give it a try. I went to the farmers market, bought some fresh beets, and have been addicted ever since. Beets are now a staple of my summer garden, and each season, I enjoy experimenting with a different variety.

Traditional red varieties like ‘Red Ace,' ‘Detroit Dark Red' and ‘Kestrel' are standard fare in my garden. Though they are not a personal favorite for flavor, I know they are reliable and produce without much fuss. Selections like ‘Bull's Blood' are coveted for their prolific and delicious greens rather than their fleshy root. Beet greens are wonderful sauteed in olive oil with just a touch of crushed garlic.

These traditional red beets are nice, but my heart belongs to two varieties of heirloom beets. ‘Chioggia' — brought to the United States from Italy in the 1840s — is both beautiful and sweet. When cut crosswise, ‘Chioggia' displays concentric rings of pink and white circles, making it look like a bulls-eye. I love to use it in stir fries because it doesn't bleed color like regular red beets, and its flavor is very mild.

Eating a ‘Golden' beet is both a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. With orange skin and bright-yellow flesh, ‘Golden' has a buttery-sweet flavor that will convert even the most beet-squeamish diner into a fan. It is truly my favorite summer vegetable, both for taste and beauty in the garden and on the plate.

To grow the best beets on the block (no matter which variety strikes your fancy) here are a few growing tips:

• Each beet “seed” actually is a cluster of several embryos, so be prepared to thin the seedlings. While this process may induce some guilt, proper thinning will lead to better-developed roots and healthier greens. Plus, the pulled seedlings make nice additions to summer salads and stir-fries.

• Plant a row of beet seeds every two weeks through early summer and into early July. Doing so allows for continual harvests well into the autumn.

• For long-term storage of harvested beets, remove the greens and pack the roots into wooden crates of slightly damp sand. Store the crates in a root cellar or other dark, cool location.

• To discourage tunneling root maggots and leaf miners, cover new beet seedlings with floating row covers. This lightweight fabric keeps the adult pests from laying eggs on the plants and also protects fall crops from light frosts.

Baby beets can be harvested as soon as the roots reach an inch in diameter, and larger beets are best picked when they are between 1 and 3 inches across. The flesh can get woody and tough if the roots are allowed to grow too large, so harvest frequently.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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