Fresh beets from your garden spring, summer, and fall

Spring-sown beets, golf-ball size, began adding a sweet touch to our dinner menus around the middle of June. But, we had enjoyed the year's first garden-picked beets back in March -- after I pulled back the mulch to harvest some that had wintered over from the previous fall.

I mention these two harvest dates to point out the value of this vegetable to any home-gardening program. It is one of those frost-hardy crops that makes backyard food production a worthwhile endeavor in the short-summer Northern states.

Here in the Northeast you can start planting in early spring and continue at two-week intervals until two months before the first expected frost.

Moreover, much of this final harvest can be stored in the garden bed all winter long. If that's not enough to make you go out and sow more beets right away, remember how many ways they can be served: hot (they add striking color as well as taste to the plate), cold (try them diced with onions or chives on a sandwich or in a Syrian pocket), or pickled.

Beets seem to respond particularly well to compost so rake an inch or so of wellrotted compost into the top 2 or 3 inches of soil. I form furrows -- or miniature trenches, if you like -- fill them with fine compost, and plant the seeds in that mix. If you've run out of compost, sprinkle a little general-purpose fertilizer over the soil.

If you make several rows about 8 inches apart the beets will grow up to cover the entire area, forming a living mulch. It will have the same effect as planting a broad row of beets.

Here's a weed-beating, growth-promoting approach that I find works very well: Fold several sheets of wet newspaper into 7-inch-wide strips and place them on the soil, leaving 1-inch gaps where the seed can be sown.

The mulch not only smothers competing weeds, but also keeps the soil pleasantly moist and cool -- conditions which the growing beets appreciate. Place a stone at the end of each strip of paper to keep it from blowing around in the breeze.

When the beets have grown tall enough, the paper can be covered by a mulch of shredded leaves or even rough unfinished compost. The rough compost does wonders for the beets, slowly releasing plant nutrients into the soil every time it rains or the plants are watered. This is a particularly good approach if you have no finished compost to add to the soil before sowing.

Sow the seeds about 2 inches apart in the rows. When the leaves are about 4 inches tall, thin to 4 inches apart by cutting off the heads of the plants between. Use the leaves in salads or c ooked like spinach.

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