FEBRUARY was the month of love. The beetroot, the red root, reminds us of that season. Beetroot, scientifically known as beta vulgaris and assumed to have its origin in Italy, is a popular vegetable that colours everything it comes into contact with.
Its red dye is still used commercially to colour tomato pastes, sauces, deserts, jams, ice cream and sweets.
In Zimbabwe, we sow beetroot from February to July. Ancient Romans grew this vegetable and its value became evident when it was discovered that it could be converted to sugar.
Beetroot consists of the upper top, which has leaves similar to spinach. The plants belong to the same family (Amaranthaceae). The leaves are also edible, although somewhat bitter as compared to the root, which is sweet.
Apparently, the red vegetable has a number of health benefits which include cancer suppression, high blood pressure regulation, liver detoxification, bowel function, white blood cell count and the prevention of heart disease or stroke.
Some local varieties include detroit dark red, which has a globular shape, deep red flesh, sweet, fine grained texture and crimson globe, which is a turnip shaped fruit, its flesh deep dark red.
There are also some yellow varieties, which are grown for home use.
The plant will need direct sowing at a plant to plant spacing of 10cm and row to row spacing of 20cm. You can soak the seeds in water for 24hrs before planting.
Thin out the extra seedlings because if you do not the result will be a number of weak plants with inedible roots.
You can safely grow your beets with onions, lettuce, beans, peas and strawberries. Try to void growing with carrots, asparagus, maize and spinach.
Plant your seeds in well-drained compost rich soil.
Water your plants well or they will develop a woody inedible core. Ensure that the beetroot bulb is covered well with soil as it grows, so that it will have the same colour throughout and it will not be hard at the exposed portions. Start harvesting your beetroot when it is at golf ball size, which is usually from 55 to 70 days from the date of sowing.
Also remember that the root can be stored well and for longer in the ground. Harvested beetroot with leaves can be stored for 3 to 4 days in the fridge, but those without leaves can be stored for 2 to 4 weeks in the fridge. Raw beets cannot be frozen as they will lose their quality when thawing. But one can freeze cooked beets and still enjoy their flavour and texture.
Beetroot is a generally disease free crop but common pests include aphids, red spider mites and cutworms. Also look out for cercospora leaf spot, downy mildew, brown rust, scab, root rot and damping off.
Use registered chemicals on the vegetable. However, cultural controls such as crop rotation, seed treatment and planting in well-drained soils is the best. A good soil pH for beetroot is 5,8 to 7,0 but it can tolerate a pH of up to 7,6.
The vegetable can be eaten raw, boiled, roasted either alone or combined with other vegetables in a salad. The young leaves can be eaten raw while the older ones can be boiled or steamed.
If ever you get your hands red with beetroot, use lemon juice to clean them.
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