This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
The many sorts of beets which are generally made use of for the kitchen are all of biennial duration; they belong to the natural order Chenopodea or Spi-naceous plants, and are recognized by the botanist as two species, viz., Beta vulgaris and B. Cicla. The probability is, however, that these are nothing more than well-marked varieties; certainly, as practically presented to us, the thing is as clearly defined in some of the different sorts that are cultivated and known to be only such. The whole genus is indigenous to the temperate and warm parts of Europe, and has been accepted in the list of edibles since the time of the elder Tradescant. Notwithstanding their eastern origin, beets thrive as well on our western continent, and enjoy the influence of our sunny skies, as is proved by the greater amount of saccharine matter which is deposited in the roots. This fact explains the reason why many esculents are consumed here to a large amount that are only made available in the northern parts of that country as additions, in the form of pickle, etc., upon the tables of luxury. Such is the case with beets; yet . we have them as a wholesome and every-day dish throughout the year.
To maintain this uninterrupted supply in the best state requires a series of sowings, by which young and tender roots can always be had. The Turnip-rooted kinds may be put in from the commencement of the ground being in good working order after winter, at intervals of three weeks, up to the middle of July, in the more northern States, and the latter part of August as we proceed further south. The sowing of the Long-rooted sorts should be discontinued some three weeks earlier, as otherwise the roots would not mature sufficiently to keep well through the winter.
Beets will grow better than most other root crops in a partial shade, but are always of much superior quality, and more profitable, when in an open exposure. The soil should also be rich, light, and mellow. If abundantly manured for a previous crop so much the better; but when not so, apply a liberal dressing of good rotted barn-yard dung, which dig in, and break up the soil well as the work proceeds. Sow the seeds two inches asunder, in drills one foot apart and one inch deep; cover up carefully. Here I would protest against that everlasting use of the rake in the vegetable garden, which some men are so guilty of. To cover seeds which are sown in drills, commence at the end, go along, with a foot on each side, turn the heels inwards, and the toes outwards; rub the feet lightly on the surface, and see how nicely the soil, pulverized in this way, will fall into the drill, and how evenly the seeds will be covered; and my word for it, if you are not wedded to old prejudices, or have any mechanical idea to guide you in the operation, you will never use a rake again for the same purpose.
This is far better than drawing the rougher, and, often, through bad spade work, hard lumps upon delfcate seeds, part of which are weighed down so much that they are prevented from ever rising above ground, and others left exposed to the atmosphere and drying winds. Thus many an honest seedsman is very unjustly blamed for selling bad seeds when the fault has been in this ignorant procedure. In this particular case a small portion of ground is sufficient for each succession; consequently, it should be forecasted so as not to make this take the position of a permanent summer crop, but make use of the outside borders, or those pieces which can be again filled up with some article to succeed on the same spot, or has been before occupied by some transient production. A little reflection will render plain to any ordinary mind what is here meant, and attention to the matter will prevent the garden from presenting ugly vacancies. For the first sowing choose a warm situation, and when the yonng plants have advanced three or four leaves thin out to six or eight inches, after which give a good and deep hoeing, and keep clear of weeds with the same instrument as they advance in growth.
The following are amongst the best varieties in cultivation: -
The earliest of all beets. Flavor, sweet and good. Texture, crisp and tender. Color, yellowish pink, striped transversely.
The best for all purposes after the first sowing, where the turnip-rooted form is preferred. Flavor, good. Texture, solid and crisp. color, light blood crimson.
If a large, long, and well-formed root is preferred, this is the kind; but there is no advantage, excepting quantity, in a large beet for the table. Flavor, good. Texture, solid and coarse-grained. Color, dark crimson.
As a long beet, this is decidedly the best, although it will not produce the same weight, on a given space, as the last described. Flavor, sweet and nutty. Texture, crisp and tender, even to maturity. - Color, blackish crimson, both root. and leaves. This variety ought always to be grown, in preference to all others, where coloring is required for confectionary, Ac, and it makes a most beautiful pickle. When true, it is of small size and dwarf habit.
This is fibrous rooted, and the serviceable parts are the leaves, which, if cooked in the same manner as Spinage, make a very good accompaniment on the dinner-table. Or the stalks may be stripped and boiled like asparagus, when they are very little inferior to that esteemed vegetable. It is, however, tender, and will not bear much frost nor wet; consequently, when desirable to have it in the winter, the seeds should be sown in a suitable place about the middle of June, so that a frame may be covered over when frost is expected. In this way we obtain another to our, at present, meagre supply of fresh vegetables through, the winter season.
Another fibrous rooted sort, and only serviceable for flavoring soups, to which the leaves impart a sweetish pleasant taste. This is considerably hardier than the last. The seeds may be sown early in spring, and a supply of leaves will be furnished throughout the season.
Beets are soon injured by frost, which renders it necessary to house them in due time. When taking them up for this purpose choose a dry day, and do not bruise them nor break the lower top roots off more than can be avoided; cut the leaves to within an inch of the crown, but not through it; reserve the central tuft entire, as the juices and coloring matter are subject to ooze out from the wounds, thereby causing the bulbs to shrivel and deteriorate in quality. For the same reason they ought to be boiled entire and peeled afterwards. The quantity required up to the latter part of winter may be put up into barrels and kept covered with straw in a cool but frost-proof cellar; or the lower ends covered with sand, or earth, in a similar place; and the remaining portion should be kept in a heap outside, in the same way as recommended for turnips in the September number.
Choose those roots that are perfectly true to character, of good form and color; plant out when all danger of frost is over, eighteen inches apart, with the top level to the surface, and do not put any two kinds in the same vicinity, as the progeny would be more or less mixed up by cross fertilization.