When the Department of agriculture banned red dye No. 4, the food coloring, it actually did a favour for home gardeners, particularly the beet lovers among us.
In the search for a red-dye substitute, researchers took another hard look at the beet. Let's face it, outside the paint and printing-ink industry, where can you find a better-covering red than that produced by beet juice?
In any event, plant breeders stepped up their beet research, looking, among other things, for a good red dye. One of these was Dr. W. H. Gabelman of the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Gabelman has concentrated for several decades on beets, and many a gardener's satisfaction with his beet crop is directly attributable to him.
In making crossings for good color, Dr. Gabelman also turned up a breed with smooth flesh and a high sugar content (a sugar beet was included in the ancestry). This beet found its way to the Joseph Harris Seed Company in Rochester, N.Y., where Harris breeders saw in it all the qualities they wanted combined with those of one of their own promising developments. The cross was made and the result, Warrior, is a vigorous, early hybrid that has lived up to expectations in the test plots.
Warrior matures in less than two months (57 days, according to test results), but retains its sweetness even when left in the ground for weeks.
To grow good beets, I mix compost or old manure and a liberal sprinkling of wood ash into the topsoil, then scatter the beet seeds evenly over the entire bed. A half inch or more of sifted compost or soil goes over the seed and the whole bed is pressed firm with a broad, flat board, then watered.
It helps if the beet seeds are soaked in water, preferably a compost tea, for 12 to 24 hours planting. As with carrots, germination is both hastened and improved if the seedbed is covered with burlap and then removed once the bulk of the seeds have germinated.
Once the seedlings are up and thoroughly established, I add a light mulch of shredded leaves. As the plants continue to grow, the mulch is increased until eventually it reaches about 2 inches thick. The mulch retards competing weeds, keeps the soil cool and moist, encourages earthworm activity, and protects the developing bulb.
Beets are frost-tolerant, so they can be sown early in the spring. You needn't be concerned that they will be wiped out by an early fall frost, either. While beets grow best in cool weather, they perform moderately well throughout the summer as well. Thus, if beets are popular in your household, you can make successive sowings every two to three weeks all season long.
What surprises many newcomers to gardening is that several little beets will spring up where one beet seed was sown. That's because each beet seed is actually a fruit that may contain as many as six beet seeds. The net result is that beet plantings will almost certainly have to be thinned.
If germination has been good, I begin to remove some of the seedlings from the more crowded areas right away. Once the little beets are a few inches tall, I thin (frequently with the aid of a pair of scissors) until the beets are about an inch apart, using the thinnings for greens.
The next thinning takes place when the beet bulbs are about the size of radishes. At this stage we eat both the bulbs and the leaves. Continue thinning this way until the beets are 4 to 6 inches apart, at which stage the remaining ones are left to grow to full size.
About the only pest problem. I have with beets is the appearance of the leaf miner (a grub that tunnels its way around the leaves). Dusting with rotenone is a help, but the home gardener also might consider making a small cage, using fly screening.
Place the screen over the beet bed and the leaf miner will prove no problem at all.