Growing beetroot yourself will pay dividends when it comes to sustenance and health, says Fiann Ó Nualláin.
THERE has been talk lately of bringing back the beet industry — Ireland’s climate is well suited to growing sugar beet, so called because it contains a lot of sucrose and also because that sucrose was once extracted on a massive commercial scale here and around Europe as an alternative to tropical sugar cane.
The cropping up last year of several large-scale experimental field trials of sugar beets in Carlow, Cork and Kildare is not so much about a spoonful for your tea but potential fuel for your car or home heating. Bio-based products from beetroot (Beta vulgaris) may just displace our unhealthy reliance on fossil-fuel.
So whatever about an emerging sugar-based bio-economy, there is a good reason to grow this crop for yourself — well two actually; sustenance and health.
You can eat the beet tops, they can be sed similarly to spinach and they have higher iron content.
Those greens are also packed with vitamin K, B vitamins, calcium, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin E. Most of us grow for the roots but don’t neglect the double harvest/bounty.
Beetroot is even more nutrient-dense and is quite tasty. It is so versatile in the kitchen; it can be steamed, boiled or roasted as a hot vegetable, allowed to cool as a salad vegetable or even shredded raw as a side, to be pickled or made up with coleslaw.
Beetroots make great juice.
Beetroot has a long history of use as a treatment for fevers, digestion complications, to alleviate constipation, restore energy and to strengthen blood — the latter not just because of the “sympathetic” redness, but via the minerals in the roots that build up our own redness.
Beetroots are also quite high in nitrates which help reduce blood pressure and benefit circulation.
As to the plant’s redness, while there are several colours available, the red-purple beetroot is most popular.
It acquires that shade by its content of the betacyanin pigment which is great for boosting human stamina and making muscles work harder, and to help muscles recover after a workout too. Ideal for active gardeners.
No matter the colour or variety you choose, the soluble fibre, carotenoids and flavonoids in beetroot all help prevent LDL or “bad” cholesterol from being oxidised and deposited in the arteries.
All beetroots contain two really potent antioxidants called betanin and vulgaxanthin which are also beneficially anti-inflammatory and play a role in detoxification support.
A bit of beetroot in your salad may just ease those aches and pains and cleanse the system — but even better, the dietary fibre in beetroot is not only reputed to improve gut flora and colonic health but is also said to increase white blood cells that fight off infections and manage mutating cells.
Beetroot has a reputation as a tricky customer: difficult to germinate and all too eager to bolt.
Well, like most things there is a knack to success, those seeds are only slow to germinate because of their hard outer shell which is there to help them survive in the ground from time of shedding until the warmth of spring — it’s a sort of time-release device to give the best survival chances.
Over time the protective shell softens and the inner seed can germinate.
But today we get them straight from the garden centre in the week we want to sow and they have been in the packet since maturing and not slowly eroding their hard shells in the ground, so there is a conflict of intent over nature.
We can easily help speed things up by soaking the seeds (which are often formed in clusters) overnight to soften them for the soil.
As to the bolting (the premature flowering and formation of seed) which bitters up the taste of the plant and depletes its energy, you can try a couple of tricks. Firstly, don’t be too eager; the seed packets will say sow in mid-March, but mid-April is when I sow.
I sow now to avoid a cold start which can stress the seedling enough that later on it is more susceptible to temperature fluxes and a cold day in summer or too high a temperature can trigger a stress-reactive bolting.
The second trick is to avoid transplanting — so rather than sow on a window sill in March or April just direct sow seeds to where you want them to grow from April to mid-July.
Staggering or successional sowing is great to extend harvest and also makes a gap in conditions so even if some bolt not all will. Presoaked seed in mid-April temperatures (over 10°C) should germinate in 6-12 days.
Trick three is to select a bolt-hardy variety — one bred to not suffer under heat stresses. Sow all varieties 1cm deep at a spacing 10cm apart in rows with 30-45cm (12-18”) apart.
Because the seeds are clustered together you can try and separate or just be prepared to thin out later on. I have found the best results to be from neutral-to-slightly-alkaline soils (in the 6.0-7.5 range).
There is a knack to harvesting: It is best to remove tops by twisting them off to avoid damaging the root-tip and causing it to bleed juice — those wounds heal over but will affect storage capacity. Take care in prizing up roots too as any slice or forking damage also makes storage life short.
For flavour and ease of cooking, harvesting is best carried out when at golf ball size. The other reason to harvest small is shorter cooking time — which is not just about cooking convenience but maximising nutritional and medicinal benefits. Many of beetroot’s phytonutrients are diminished by heat so at golf ball size, a 15-minute steaming or a 45-minute roasting will keep the bulk of nutrients intact and the dish cooked through.