Chard, Beets and Spinach

Chard

Genus: Beta

Beets and Chard are usually biennial. In mild winter areas it is possible to obtain seed by planting in summer, and allowing the plants to over-winter; they will bolt to flower the following spring. In cold climates, the plants must be mulched or dug before the ground freezes hard and then stored to replant the following spring. Beet can be planted in the spring and will survive light frosts. Beet and chard are the same species. They easily cross and are wind pollinated.

Developing Beet varieties went in several different directions, those for the nutrient-rich greens or tops (silverbeet or chard), those for the roots that could be stored in root cellars or pickled for sustenance in more difficult times, the huge mangel beets for livestock and then selection for the extraction of sugars. What a vegetable!

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Chard

Hot pink from 5 Colour Chard

Hot pink from 5 Colour Chard

In the 1970's I was lucky enough to be able to order directly from Thompson and Morgan in England (before the U.S. retail address was available). They offered a very comprehensive selection of flower and vegetable seed varieties that were rarely seen in the U.S. (they still do). One mixture that caught my eye was a blend of chards with stems of yellow, orange, pink, salmon and red. I had grown the white ribbed, dark green crumpled leaf Fordhook, the light green or yellowish Lucullus and a variety called, Rhubarb Chard.

Since chard often overwinters and keeps their impressive leafy tops into the winter here on coastal Long Island, the Rhubarb Chard with their deep red stems especially is a delight to see in the garden when everything else is drab. The "greens", of course, can be harvested when very little else is available. T&M's Five Colour Silverbeet looked very impressive. It would be a great eye-catching addition to the garden and so I ordered a packet. I doubt if Thompson and Morgan developed the variety- they are primarily a retailer like most seed companies that sell to gardeners. But their sources are often British and you find many of the same British bred varieties also retailed by New Zealand and Australian seed companies. Five Colour Silverbeet became especially popular "down under" in parts of the British Commonwealth and after being dropped by Thompson and Morgan, continued to be available into the 1980's in New Zealand and Australia. I had successfully been wintering over and producing chard seed crops from the original five colour and later, purchased seed from a company called "Diggers". Long Island Seed marketed a "Genetically Diverse Chard Blend" from 1980 till 1994 and it always gave us pleasure to include the genetics of the "Five Colour Chards" in our mixtures.

The most vigorous of the "Five Colour Chards" was the hot pink selection above and a terrific orange stem variety. As I recall, we always had enough "hot pink" to add to our mixtures! The above is a scan from a kodachrome slide stamped 1981.

If you're interested in maintaining a color from Rainbow Chard (available through Seed Savers Exchange) go right ahead.  The Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, Iowa) encourage you to save seeds.

I'm aware that some separate colors of chard are now being patented.  The shame of it!  There are subtle variations in stem colors and leaf variations of Rainbow and Bright Lights and even in different production years because of a certain amount of crossing and selecting (intentional and otherwise). Kind of like the subtleties between Rhubarb Chard, Burpees Rhubarb Chard, Vulcan and Ruby Red Chard. One might claim one is better than the other but they are all red chards. Is one significantly better or different that it warrants patenting and how will a small producer of seed know that their not breaking infringing on a patent by selling the same color! Most of same colors in all chard (except greens) have a fairly recent parent in common.

But, all of a sudden mini greens have become big business and the Rainbow chards are showing up in high priced mescluns. My advice is, if you use large quantities of a particular rainbow chard- grow your own seed crop. It is only if you sell patented seed that you risk fines.

Leaf Beets (Chard)

Leaf Beets (Chard)

Beta Seed (Chard and Beet)

Beta Seed (Chard and Beet)

Saving seeds of Beets or Chard is less common among gardeners because it's a two year project. Only after a period of chilling and dormancy will the seed stalk appear since they are biennials. In harsh winter climates they have to be dug and stored just above freezing under high humidity conditions (root cellared). Some of our winters are mild enough here that we leave the roots in the ground and cover the tops with a deep mulch before the ground freezes. In the spring we'll see what we have by digging and selecting out the best plants. They will be replanted several feet apart since the second year they may become formidable plants that have to be staked to support the masses of seeds produced. It is easy to produce several pounds of seed from a short row of overwintered beet or chard. We will isolate different kinds (unless we are planning to have them hybridize) in poly tunnels or in different gardens separated by buildings or hedgerows.

Oh yes, more important, if you are producing a beet seed crop and a chard seed crop in the same year, they could cross. Most likely, you may end up producing a worthless crop of beets from seeds unintentionally crossed with chard. Chard roots are not of value from a culinary perspective and will cause a significant decline in the quality of your beets.

When the corky seed balls become dry and brown the stems are cut and brought out of the weather to dry some more. Roll the brown fruits off the stems with your fingers if you're producing small amounts of seed. Each fruit contains a few seeds and if they all germinate after planting, will require thinning.

 

BEET

Beet Crosses

Beet Crosses

I don't enjoy eating plain boiled beets. I will eat them in a salad with minced onions au vinegarette but otherwise I just don't particularly enjoy the flavor. So why do I spend so much time breeding beets?

Beets are beautiful. Like the multicolor stems of chards, beet roots can be found in a range of colors from snow white to near black with pinks, yellows, oranges and purples in between. I like the diversity of beets.  We have been crossing a number of beets, including cultivars from USDA that were collected in the Middle East in the 1940's. Our objective is to develop a blend with a nice range of colors, good shape and good sugar content. I'll leave it to others to give me the thumbs up on flavor as I bring my new creations to the table.



SPINACH

(Spinacia oleracea)                          

Spinach is a major small farm crop on Long Island. Typically, it is sown in late summer for fall harvest or fall for an over-wintered spring crop.  Raising spinach from a late spring- early summer sowing often results in failure because spinach is very day-length sensitive. It is a LONG DAY plant meaning that instead of producing masses of large leaves, it is compelled to put it's energy into producing flowers when day lengths are getting longer.   Better get an early start to develop a large plant before the long days of May and June.

Some spinach cultivars have been selected for their long-standing or bolt-resistance since one would rather be able to produce and harvest those leaves for as long as you can. Breeders have selected for bolt-resistance by rouging out early bolters. You should do the same.  Spinach is a hardy annual.

Ladybug Beetle on Prickly or Sharp-Seed Spinach

Ladybug Beetle on Prickly or Sharp-Seed Spinach

Prickly-Seeded spinach cultivars were common at one time, but not any more. Smooth or round seed types are easier to clean and sow. We collected some prickly seed varieties from China, Holland and the Heritage Gardens at Monticello just to see if there were some traits that made them useful in our breeding program. In Jefferson's days prickly varieties were considered the most cold-hardy.  We find that they don't have much bolt resistance so should be sown in the late summer as a fall crop or to overwinter as an early spring green.  This would have made this kind of spinach essential in the colonial days where cold resistance could allow them to harvest nurtient rich "greens" before other crops were ready to be harvested.  They really do have nasty seeds though!


SPINACH EVALUATION:

A smooth-seeded type spinach.

A smooth-seeded type spinach.

Over the years we have been interested in finding a really great tasting spinach. One with a lower metallic oxalic acid taste. In recent years two stand out as very good. Unipack 12, a commercial processing hybrid with it's round, smooth leaves (and good bolt resistance) and Monnopa, an open-pollinated variety from Europe which is well-regarded by organic growers there.

We are participating in the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) trial of Butterflay from Turtle Island Seeds this year. Butterflay is a winner in the taste-test. Quick growing and vigorous from an April sowing, it is a quick germinator and in spite of this spring's heat, kept it's fine flavor. In this year's trial it out performed Unipack in our sandy soils and has many similarities with Unipack. It resisted bolting until temperatures reached in the 90's for several days. Cooler weather would have given us a better, extended harvest since cold can suppress bolt proneness. We'll plant it again in late summer to see how it performs in cold.

In most spinach varieties plants are dioecious (there are also monoecious types with both male and female flowers on the same plant stalk). Here the male plant is in the front and the female plant is in the background. Large clustered fruits (containing the immature seed can be seen on the female stalk. The males appear first and shed lots of wind-blown pollen. If you are producing pure seed of a variety make sure that there aren't any other varieties shedding pollen for at least several thousand feet. It is easy to develop your own designer hybrid though by intercropping two varieties. The males will wither and die leaving the often taller, more robust female plants to mature their seeds.  Spinach is a very easy crop to harvest seed from.  Wait until the plants brown and dry.

The Diversity of Beets

A Mess of Beets

A Mess of Beets

This year I grew beets.  I cooked beets.  I ate beets.  It was not a great year for tomatoes but it was a terrific year for beets.  In fact carrots, turnips, rutabagas and other root vegetables really performed better than I expected.  Even my robust mustard greens that reseed each year produced massive white roots looking like giant Chinese radishes.   And speaking of Chinese radishes, they did well too. 

My beets were from many sources; some acquisitions were quite old.  Lutz Greenleaf also known as Winter Keeper from two different commercial sources turned out to be two different beets.  The most true to type as I remember from the 1980's when I grew them, were from seeds several years old.  They are sweet and hoof marks around the few plants left in the row indicate that my renegade deer herd are not only grazing at the tops but digging them out of the ground. 

I grew several kinds of golden beets.  The old stand-by, Burpees Golden Beet now has new competition.   I received a Grex of Lutz Green Leaf, Crosby Egyptian and Yellow Intermediate from Alan Kapular, Peace Seed plant breeder and purveyor of seeds a few years ago but never got around to planting it and last year received a yellow selection developed by Alan and marketed by Fedco Seeds.  Alan's yellow beets are real troopers; they do perform well and they are beauties right out of the ground.  Flavor is different, not in a bad way, from other beets perhaps from the mangel heritage but I am hooked on them.

Alan Kapular's Yellow from Grex

Alan Kapular's Yellow from Grex

The last whites I grew were in a little packet of beets collected by Dr. Jack Harlan, who led a USDA seed collecting expedition into Turkey, Syria and Iraq in 1948.  Jack Harlan was a collector who was inspired by Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian seed collector who traveled the world in order to gather seeds from their centers of origin;  seeds that could be used to develop new and better crops as sources of disease resistance and countless other worthwhile traits.  Vavilov established the first government seed bank in the world and as he traveled to find the geographic origin of certain economic crops,  realized that these "centers of origin" were places in the world where the diversity in a species was extraordinary.  These "Vavilo Centers" are clustered mostly near the equator.  Vavilov's exploits were nothing less that Indiana Jones-like as he traveled to distant parts of the world risking his life collecting seed.   Ironically, Jack Harlan was to study in the Soviet Union under Nikolai Vavilov but by the 1940's Vavilov had been sent to a Siberian prison where he died for nothing more than advocating the theory of Darwinian evolution and confronting bad science. 

Jack Harlan's trip where he collected the beets I grew was to one of these centers of origin;  the original breadbasket, where wheat originated and evolved.  He went there to primarily collect wheat for the US government.  The hundreds of kinds of wheat he found there were all different because they had adapted to conditions across a varied landscape.  Isolated valleys, river basins and mountain passes each yielded different landraces.  Farmers in each small village maintained their own seeds with qualities that were unique from neighboring villages.  Jack Harlan's wheat collection over the years have helped protect wheat crops in this country as the genetic source of rust resistance and other diseases.  Those diseases could wreck as much havoc on the food supply of the US as the potato blight did to Ireland in the mid 1800's.  The difference is that unlike Ireland in the 1800's, when a new disease poses a potential problem with the nations economic crops; breeders have a large collection ofstrains gathered from centers of diversity and available through the government national seed bank.  So far,  Harlan's and those strains of wheat gathered by others and also banked have been used successfully to breed in resistance.

Albino

Albino

Fortunately for beet breeders, the Mideast is also a center for the diversity in beets and Jack Harlan also collected some very interesting material for the government which is made available to plant breeders and researchers.  Jack Harlan's beets contributed some of the genetic diversity to the seed crops I grew and marketed in the 1980's.  The 30 or so seeds I received from the USDA seed bank gave me white and yellow beets that I could select from and cross with commercial beets to produce seed crops that I made available in the days of the Long Island Seed Company.

I grew some very tasty reds.  Lutz, of German origin,  has always been a favorite because it grows to huge sizes, stays sweet and tender and it has beautiful green leaves.  Alan's yellow beet inherits many of these same traits from Lutz.   Our beet trials in the 1980's consisted growing all the common commercial kinds at the time and Egyptian was the absolute favorite in taste and texture among my customers at the time.  My sweet beet success this year was the hybrid Merlin with 14° brix.

These pink beets give you some idea of what happens when stray pollen from red beets affect a seed crop of Blankoma white beet.  You might be dismayed by the errant crossing but such beets inspire me as much as Harlan's collection of landraces from the center of beet origin with the potential of this crop and I ponder what kind of crosses I will do with the beets from this falls harvest.  Perhaps I shouldn't cross the beets but instead isolate a population of Lutz to generate a seed crop and work on reselecting a favorite.  Maybe I should grow an F2 of Merlin to see what I will get;  perhaps that could lead to a nice open pollinated selection.  I will leave some of each beet in the ground with mulch to cover the exposed part of the root and also store some under root cellar conditions just above freezing until springtime since beets do not always make it through a Long Island winter in ground.