There is sugar in beetroot, and on that account alone this vegetable deserves more attention than it usually receives. It is accommodating in its requirements, thriving in sandy or other light soil, in just average ground, and in clay if this is dug deeply, broken up thoroughly and lightened with wood ash or crushed mortar rubble.
The roots only are eaten; the bold green, bronze-green or red leaves should be dug into the ground or added to the soft refuse heap for later digging in.
Varieties specially suitable for shallow, or stony, or heavy clay soil are the round-rooted ones such as Globe, Crimson Ball, the Egyptian Turnip-rooted, and the stump-rooted Intermediate. These also do well in all types of ground; whereas the long-rooted beet, such as Green Top and Blood Red, will succeed only in really deep, well-cultivated soil, in which the roots can push down without hindrance.
The sugar beet, which is either yellow or white skinned, is mostly grown as a field crop for the sake of the sugar which can be extracted from the roots. The method of home extraction consists of boiling the cut-up roots for three to four hours, and again boiling the strained-off liquid until reduced to a syrup, which is bottled for sweetening purposes.
An ounce of seed is sufficient to sow 120 ft. of row. Average time taken for seedlings to appear is about four weeks.
The roots of the beet are ready for lifting in July. Available in store until the following March or April. Round-rooted varieties sown early can be used throughout summer for salad purposes; grown quickly and lifted whilst small they are delicious.
Neither heavy nor light soil should be manured for this crop, unless it be old material from a worn-out hotbed, mushroom bed or marrow heap; this may be dug into light, poor soil with considerable advantage. Heavy soil needs to be dug deeply and lightened throughout the full dug depth with crushed mortar rubble, or wood ash (from a bonfire). The latter should be applied generously; the potash it contains is needed by beet. The ideal arrangement is to let beet follow a crop for which special preparations had been made in the way of deep digging and manuring, such as celery, leek, onion, pea, bean.
When and How to Sow.
For summer salad purposes a sowing may be made as early as March in a warm, sheltered spot; otherwise mid-April is safer, with small successive sowings up to the end of June or early July. For this purpose use one of the round-rooted varieties such as Globe or Crimson Ball, and lift them young. They can stand about 6 in. apart.
Drills should be 12 in. apart and about 1 in. deep. Seed for small summer roots should be sown three together at 6-in. intervals; for long roots for winter use and storing, three seeds together at 9-in. intervals. Long-rooted varieties to be sown not earlier than the end of April or the beginning of May.
If all three seeds at each station germinate, reduce to one. The operation is easier if the soil is moist at the time – after rain or a good watering.
Quick growth is encouraged by plentiful applications of water, and further assisted by surface dressings of agricultural salt in June and July, and wood ash or soot, a trowelful to the yard run of row; these should be hoed in, and then watered in unless the ground is moist.
Forked, Coarse Roots.
Long roots develop misshapenly in shallow, stony, or hard clay soil; round varieties have the best chance in these circumstances. Roots will be forked or fanged in recently manured ground. Over-large and coarse-eating roots are the result of sowing long-rooted varieties too early. Eating qualities are also adversely affected by drought, especially from July to August.
Flying and Tunnelling Pests.
Sparrows and other birds may give trouble in the early stages; protect the seedlings by dusting with old soot when the leaves are wet with dew or after rain. Repeat the dressing if rain washes it off.
Lifting the Roots.
To lift the roots push the spade or fork, held upright, into the ground about 6 in. from one side of the row. Drive it in deeply, then push the handle down and away from the row. Having thus loosened a root, draw it out of the ground with the left hand, gripping the plant by the leaves low down. The operation needs care; broken or bruised roots bleed and may lose some of their colour.
Roots for storing should be lifted before they can be damaged by frost; in early October in cold localities. In any case they should be out of the ground by late November.
Storing for Winter.
Neither scratched, bruised nor broken roots should go into store. They would decay, and decay quickly spreads. When the roots are lifted, remove the leaves by screwing them off about 2 in. above the top of the root.
Store them then in single layers in sifted fire ashes or sifted soil, in a frost- and damp-proof shed or cellar. If they must be stored in the open, clamp them where water will not lie. This opera- tion consists in putting down a 1 in. thick foundation of sifted ashes to form a circular bed. On this the roots are placed one by one, the crowns (root tops) outwards. When all the circular area has been covered with roots one layer deep, cover with sifted ashes; put down more roots in the same manner, cover with ashes, then more roots, and so on, decreasing the circumference of the pile with each layer so that it finishes as a conical heap.
Give a final covering of ashes, about 3 in. deep, and finish off with a 3-in. thick layer of dry bracken or straw. Ventilation of the interior is necessary; this is arranged by inserting into the top a twisted bundle (about 2 in. thick and 1 ft. long) of bracken or straw, this to go to the bottom of the final ash covering. In the event of water collecting at the base, dig a trench, right around the clamp, to lead it away.
Replace that part of the covering which is removed each time roots are taken from this winter store for use in the kitchen.
To prepare for table, wash the roots, but do not remove the skin (or peel) until cooked. Beet may be pickled for winter use according to directions in the section EASY HOME PRESERVATION OF VEGETABLES. The sugar content represents the chief food value; on this account it should be avoided by diabetics.