Beets are edible plants native to the Mediterranean. They are grown all over the world, since they are easy to grow and they thrive in most climates, although they do not appreciate extreme cold or heat. Beets tend to be readily available in canned form in many grocery stores, and they can also be found fresh in grocer's and farmers' markets. A closely related plant, Swiss chard, is also very popular.
Unlike many food plants, all of the parts of the beet are edible. Many consumers are familiar with the fleshy root, but beet greens are also very tasty. In fact, some types of beets are specifically cultivated for their greens, and they are known as leaf beets or Swiss chard. The colorful stems and rich colors of the leaves also sometimes play a role in ornamental gardens.
The scientific name of the beet is Beta vulgaris, which means “common beet” in Latin. The classically red root of the beet has been cultivated as a food source for hundreds of years, and a number of cultivars have arisen, including golden beets, which have a rich orange to yellow color. Another unusual looking beet cultivar is the chioggia or “candy cane” beet, named for its concentric circles of red and white flesh.
Along with other root vegetables, beets can be grilled, baked, roasted, and boiled. They are often pickled for use in salads, and they may be included in root vegetable gratins and similar dishes. Beet greens can be used like chard and other dark leafy greens in things ranging from salads to quiche. When selecting beets to eat, look for firm, healthy specimens with no sliminess or discoloration, and store them under refrigeration. If the beets come with greens attached, remove the greens, since they leech moisture from the beet.
Beets thrive in most USDA zones. Because they prefer cooler weather, in zones 8 and above, they should be grown as a winter crop, or planted in the early spring. The warmer temperatures of summer can be too intense for beets to grow in if they are cultivated in these areas. They also appreciate regular watering on a consistent schedule, and infrequent watering may cause the roots to crack.
To grow beets at home, start by preparing a bed of soil in a sunny spot. Turn the soil with a shovel or trowel, mixing in mulch and fertilizer to make the soil rich and airy, in order to promote healthy root growth. Start the beets from seed, planting the seeds before the last frost of the year and giving them approximately one inch (two and a half centimeters) of water each week. As the beets sprout, thin them out if you are growing them for the roots, so that the roots will have room to flourish. The tender young greens can be used in salads. Harvest the beets as needed, and remember that bigger beets tend to be woody and bitter.