I’ve planted few beets in my gardening days, mostly to photograph them. Other than a rare pickled beet slice I’ll put on my plate at a restaurant salad bar, I don’t eat them. They’re too sweet and overwhelming in taste.
Swiss chard is another vegetable that is uncharted territory for me, too. My impression is that chard is kind of bitter and almost an ancient tonic for spring like dandelion greens. What I have recently discovered is that chard can be used young, like spinach, for salads and sautéed dishes. It’s more tender than spinach and doesn’t have that mouth-drying iron taste. I’ll be planting one of the colorful ones in the next week or two, like ‘Peppermint’, new this year from Sakata Seed or ‘Bright Lights’, an Australian heirloom with numerous colors.
Peppermint' Swiss chard looks like a colorful vegetable, and it's supposed to be disease and insect resistant. Photo courtesy of Sakata Seeds.
The irony of my aversions is that beets and Swiss chard are the same vegetable; each is a variation created over time by selection from numerous genetic crosses in nature and mutations in response to climate and growing conditions. Leaf beets or Swiss chard, as we call it, have the same colorful roots as the beetroot or sugar beet. Beets, however, form a bulb instead of fleshy stalks, as in the case of chard. Swiss chard got its name from a Swiss botanist named Koch who in the 19th century, named the vegetable in honor of his homeland, even though it originated in the Mediterranean region.
'Bright Lights' chard, from Australia, produces tender sweet leaves in a couple of weeks after seeding.
You can eat young beet greens, too, just like chard. Throw a few in a salad. Spring salad mix from the grocery store incorporates plenty of beet greens. A friend told me that I should peel a few beets, drizzle with olive oil and roast them to truly enjoy their flavor. I’m trying that next time I make a roasted chicken.
I may end up growing beets, after all.
The reddest beet grown today is an heirloom from the 18th century, Bull's Blood. It's also the most flavorful.
Did you know?
Swiss chard seeds should be soaked in water for at least 24 hours before planting. Each seed is actually a dried fruit with 1 to 5 seeds in it.Most will sprout, so it’s important to thin seedlings to stand at least 12 inches apart so plants grow vigorously.
Keep beets and chard watered during dry periods so they don’t bolt, sending up a premature flower stalk to create seed.
It takes 100 pounds of sugary beets to produce five pounds of sugar.Despite this low yield, beets make up 30 percent of sugar sold today.
Not everyone can metabolize the bright red compound betacyanin that gives red beets their color. If you lack a gene specific to its breakdown, betacyanin passes through your body unaltered and turns your urine a bright pink and your feces red.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.