Beets and chard are different varieties (or groups) of Beta vulgaris. Cultivars grown primarily for their enlarged roots are included in var. crassa, and those grown for their leaves in var. cicla. The leaves of beets and chard have long petioles (leaf stems) that all arise from the base of the plant. The leaves can be 4-18 in (10.2-45.7 cm) or more in length, and dark shiny green to red. Those of chard have thick, sometimes brightly colored, petioles and midribs, and are often ruffled or puckered. Perpetual spinach or spinach beet is a type of chard with smaller petioles and midribs. Beets and chard produce a flowering stalk in the second growing season that can stand up to 4 ft (1.2 m) tall. It bears small greenish or reddish flowers which lack petals. The "fruit" develops from aggregates of two or more flowers.
Sugar beet roots are usually a creamy white color and can weigh 6-15 lbs (2.7-6.8 kg). Mangel beets, grown for livestock feed, are even larger. They grow to 60 lb (27 kg) and can be white, red, or yellow. Garden or table beets have been selected for flavor and small size. There are red, yellow, orange, white, pink and striped varieties. Some that are elongate, some are flattened and others are the typical globe shape.
Beets and chard are biennial plants, meaning that they do not flower until their second growing season. They require at least a month of cold weather after their roots have matured. In mild winter areas it is possible to obtain seed by planting in summer, and allowing the plants to overwinter; they will bolt to flower the following spring. In cold climates, the plants must be dug before the first hard freeze and stored until spring when they can be returned to the garden.
Light: Beets and chard produce best in full sun, but can tolerate partial shade, especially in the summer and at midday.
Moisture: Chard should not be allowed to dry out. Beets are a little less sensitive to drought, but both should be watered before the soil is completely dried. Excessive fluctuation in soil moisture will cause beet roots to crack.
Hardiness: Beets and chard are grown as annuals. In zones 8B, 9 and 10 they are grown in the winter. Elsewhere beets and chard are grown in the spring and all through the summer. Both chard and beets are tolerant of moderate frosts and freezes, and more tolerant of hot weather than most other greens and root crops.
Propagation: Beet and chard seeds are contained in a dry and corky cube-shaped calyx. The entire aggregate (containing 2-5 seeds) is planted, and later the seedlings are thinned to 4-8 in (10.2-20.3 cm) for beets and 10-15 in (25.4-38.1 cm) for chard. Care must be taken when thinning since the tiny roots are often intertwined. The seed clusters can be broken apart before planting by gently crushing with a rolling pin, but this can damage some of the seeds.
Many gardeners find Swiss chard, especially some of the red and yellow varieties, attractive enough for the flower border, and indeed some varieties are grown primarily as ornamentals. For food, harvest individual outer leaves of chard as needed, leaving the central, growing part of the plant undisturbed. Chard can tolerate considerable harvesting in this manner. The petioles are usually cooked separately, and served like asparagus. Chard is more heat tolerant than spinach, and often is the only potherb green available in the middle of summer.
Beet roots should be harvested while young and tender, no more than 2 in (5.1 cm) in diameter, lest they become woody and fibrous. And don't overlook the beet greens, which are much like spinach.
To cook beet roots with minimal loss of color, flavor and nutrients, leave the thin bottom roots intact and cut off the leaf stems about an inch above the root, then boil for 5-15 minutes. After plunging into cold water, the stems and roots can be trimmed and the skins will slip off effortlessly. The beets can then be sliced and served hot as a vegetable, pickled in vinegar, used cold in a salad, or made into borscht. Beets baked at 325ºF (163ºC) until tender and served with sour cream make a tasty and colorful side dish, and retain more flavor, color and nutrients than boiled beets. Peel and grate raw beets and add to fresh garden salad.
Elongated, pale beet roots were eaten by the Greeks at least 2000 years ago, but it wasn't until the 17th century that beets with round, red roots became available. Sugar beets were developed in the 18th and 19th centuries by French and Prussian plant breeders who needed a way to produce sugar in their short growing season. When the British blockaded France in 1812 and cut off the supply of sugar from New World sugar cane, the emperor, Napoleon, ordered the cultivation and refinement of sugar beets on a large scale.
Today, the US, Russia and Germany are the leading producers of sugar beets. Nearly half of world sugar production comes from sugar beets, which can contain up to 20% sugar. Chemists tell us there is no difference between the processed sugars manufactured from sugar cane and sugar beet.
The young, tender leaves of the wild seaside beet are harvested by Europeans and said to taste better than chard or beet greens.
Steve Christman 4/8/00; updated 2/12/01, 11/22/03