Claire’s Wee Garden: Beets in the 18th century garden

ltblueyellowYou’ve Got The Beet!

Wild beets are not the sweet round balls we’ve come to expect. Beets are native to the coast of western Europe and the Mediterranean,  growing only a few hundred yards from the high tide mark, and were first gathered as a forage crop for their spring greens beets, not their roots. They were, however, brought under cultivation by the Celts as early as 2000 BC, long before the Romans arrived with their own varieties from the Mediterranean region.

beetsAncient Greeks and Romans grew both red and white varieties of table beets as well as a Sicilian beet called sicula which is what we know today as chard. Archeologists digging at several Roman military sites across Europe and the Alps have discovered quantities of beet seeds, although we can’t distinguish between what we’d consider a true common beet and the chard. Likewise, the first European written record referencing beets surviving today, which dates from the Middle Ages (812 AD),  part of a royal estate’s garden inventory near Versailles, is also ambiguous as to what type of beet they meant, the word used was “beta” which could be a beet, but could also have referred to chard.

Today beets are divided into four cultivated forms: the chards, turnip beets, sugar beets, and the common garden beet.  Chards are now grown as a separate category, and were included as part of Claire’s Wee 18th Century Garden Seed collection.

The turnip beet produces a larger, woodier, root with much larger greens.  It needs quite a bit of space to produce well, and was once used as animal feed.. which means it is the plant most threatened with extinction, since few farmers feed beets any more, nor have the equipment to harvest and store them.  The sugar beet on the other hand was developed in the 1740s in what is now Poland and by 1766 had become an important commercial crop and an alternative source for sugar. Sugar beets were intended to compete with cane sugar, not for the table ( in the 18th and 19th centuries their overly sweet flavor was considered distasteful) and in that they have been wildly successful.  Today if you don’t see “cane sugar” or more importantly “pure cane sugar” on the label chances are what you’re buying is not cane sugar but sugar from sugar beets.

We can safely say the beet arrived in colonial America already well developed into several varieties and forms, and because it could be grown as a root vegetable, and stored for months over the winter, it was considered an essential winter food.  Colonists even sprouted beet roots or beet seeds during the winter months, something Claire would have appreciated in mid-February. Popular 18th century beet varieties include the Early Blood Turnip, Orange Turnip, and the Green Beet (“for stews and soups”) which was not a rooted beet, but a spinach like chard.

No idea who this artist is, but I love her Ts of etsy!But what you have in your packet is the common garden beet.  This variety has been perfected over the centuries to grow a tidy round root under small leaves.  Small leaves means you can pack more plants into a smaller space, something you’ll appreciate if you’re turning a garden over by hand.  While these are deep red beets the yellow beets which are increasingly popping up in seed packets have been known since at least 1583, and likely date from the Middle Ages.  Their saving grace, in addition to being pretty, is their color doesn’t run or stain.

Claire would have planted her beets in the spring, when the soil could be worked, and if she wanted the best yield she’d have soaked the seeds overnight and planted them in nice loamy soil that wasn’t too acidic.  While she could do successive plantings, she’d have skipped the summer months because the beets won’t germinate well in heat. And put a few more in around August for an autumn crop.

But otherwise, beets are nifty little things.. as many as three beets may grow where one seed is planted, so she’d have planted sparingly, and thinned her beet seedlings, adding them to a nice spring salad, when they were 4-6″ high, to stand about 1 1/2″ apart.  As her beets grew to about the size of a marble she’d pull every other one to allow larger beets to grow.  As with most root crops it is important that beets have a consistent moisture level, so Claire would have mulched around her rows of beets to maintain a nice damp climate for them, and suppress weeds.

pickled_beetsBeet tops and beet roots are both delicious.  So Claire would have made full use of her beets all summer.  Come autumn she’d have dug her beets and stored them in damp sand in her root cellar (or made delicious pickled beets out of them.. I’m addicted to pickled beets).  She’d have, however, set the very best carefully aside. Beets are biennial, setting seed every other year.  In the spring she’d have taken her saved beet roots and planted them close together so when they bolted they’d cross pollinate, setting seed to be collected for the following year.  Since beets and chards will cross-pollinate colonial farmers kept several vegetable gardens going in rotations, so that varieties that would cross pollinate weren’t close to each other.

Beets can be planted in containers like window boxes if they’re kept damp and not left out to fry in the hot sun, or put into your garden.  There’s a bit over 1 oz of beet seeds here, enough to give you a taste of the 18th century.

Learn more about Claire’s 18th century garden vegetables

1 FREE Audiobook RISK-FREE from AudiblePlanting a garden is more fun when you’re listening to Davina Porter reading the Outlander series.. in fact, I can trace my obsession with the 18th century to Outlander, bought on because it was the most listening bang for the buck.. over 40 hours of book will weed a lot of garden. The whole series? Will have you producing most of your own vegetables in no time!

Read more:

Tshirt available at: Coup’s Shop on Etsy

Share Button