The plant from which the various types of beets have been originated is native to the seacoast of South Europe. Cultivated forms have been grown for more than two thousand years. The beet is an important vegetable in European countries and is largely grown in America, where soil and climatic conditions are suitable. The vegetable is especially valuable to market gardeners who follow the most intensive systems of cropping. (See Figure 63.) The fleshy leaves of the garden type are used extensively for greens and the roots are valued for pickling or for cooking.
There are very few American gardens in which beets are not grown to some extent for the home table. While this is true, certain soil characteristics are essential when the enterprise is to be undertaken on a large commercial scale, especially when the product is to be sold on an open market in competition with beets grown under ideal conditions.
Although oval and turnip-shaped beets are shallow feeders, a fairly deep, moist, but well-drained soil is apparently necessary for all varieties. The sandy loams are best suited for this crop, especially when earliness is an important factor. When grown in heavy soils the beets besides being unsyrnmetrical in form, develop a large number of fibrous laterals, objectionable from both market and culinary standpoints. Clover sods, green manures and stable manures greatly improve the physical condition of heavy soils, but in such soils beets cannot be expected to produce as fine roots as in soils better adapted to them. Favorable market conditions, however, may make the crop remunerative under adverse soil conditions.
The beet thrives best in the cooler parts of the country; hence the crop is more important in the North than in the South. When planted southward, advantage is taken of the moderate temperatures of early spring. Although the plants are comparatively hardy, frost sometimes injures or even kills the very early plantings and the crop must be harvested and protected before severe freezing weather in the fall.
Twenty-three varieties of beets were described by Goff (Sixth Report of the New York Station, pp. 120-132). They are grouped under four general classes; namely, root oblate or top-shaped, root oval, root half-long and root long-conical. Each of these classes is divided into subclasses based on color - red or yellow. The four types of beets which have been developed from Beta vulgaris are common garden beet, sugar beet, mangel or mangel-wurzel, and Swiss chard, which last is used for greens. The following varieties of garden beets are the most important:
Crosby Egyptian, a very early and valuable blood turnip variety; extensively grown.
Eclipse, extra early, round and smooth; top small; flesh intense red and high in quality; popular for home use and market.
Early Model, a very early round beet of high quality.
Egyptian. Various strains or selections of this variety are offered by seedsmen. It is an early, turnip-shaped beet and largely planted.
Edmond Blood Turnip, a round beet, desirable to follow the very early varieties.
Bastian Blood Turnip, a turnip-shaped beet, valued for early planting.
Bastian Half-Long Blood, light in color and excellent in quality; a medium early variety.
Yellow Turnip, an early, yellow, sweet-fleshed variety.
Long Dark Red, a long-rooted late variety valued by some people for winter use.
The beet seed sold in the United States is produced in California, the Middle States, England and France. A small percentage of market gardeners grow their own seed. As the plant is biennial, in order to produce seed the roots must be preserved over winter (325) and planted in the spring as soon as the ground can be prepared. The seed plants grow to the height of about 4 feet and branch profusely; therefore the roots should be planted about 2×3 feet apart.
With careful, intelligent selection, superior types may be developed and maintained.
The seed of the beet is really not a seed, but a fruit, usually containing several seeds and surrounded by a corky pericarp. These characteristics of the seed should be well understood by planters in order to sow properly. As each so-called seed may produce several plants, care must be exercised to avoid sowing too thickly. The corky covering requires a liberal and constant supply of moisture to insure germination.
The early varieties are sown as soon in the spring as the ground can be prepared. From six to eight weeks are required for the roots to attain a marketable size. Under favorable conditions the early varieties are ready for market in the North by June 1. Succession plantings of oval and turnip-shaped beets may be made until the middle of August. Long and half-long varieties should be sown in May, as about five months are required for them to reach maturity. While the long types are used to a considerable extent, oval and turnip-shaped varieties are more popular as well as more profitable for the late crop, because they do not need to be sown until after the ground has produced one or two cash crops of other vegetables, and they are also preferred on the market.
The distance between rows will depend mainly upon whether the cultivating is to be done with a hand wheel hoe or a horse cultivator. Twelve inches between the rows is the standard distance for wheel hoe cultivation, although many prefer about 15 inches. When horses are to be used, the spacing varies from 24 to 30 inches. A very successful grower allows only 18 inches between rows and cultivates with a small mule.