For the past few months, I've been following the campaign to convince our first family to plant a Victory Garden on the lawn of the White House.
I signed on to the effort on my Facebook page and watched the video on March 20 of Michelle Obama cutting into the soil with a spade along with 26 elementary school children. Lawn lovers may cringe, but in today's economy, giving up a bit of grass to grow our food doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
It all began with an idea by Maine gardener, founder and president of Kitchen Gardens International, Roger Doiron. If you're wondering what KGI is exactly, it is a non-profit group whose mission is ''to empower individuals, families, and communities to achieve greater levels of food self-reliance through the promotion of kitchen gardening, home-cooking, and sustainable local food systems.'' By using the Internet to connect with people around the globe, KGI has been actively promoting growing our own food in our own backyards.
The idea behind ''Eat the View'' caught on so well that the first family said, ''sure, we can do that,'' and they did. According to various news reports about the White House garden, they began by planting several cool weather vegetable plants and seeds and expect their first harvest around the end of April. It will likely include lettuce, spinach and other small greens. What it won't include; however, is beets.
Of the 55 varieties of vegetables going into the garden on the first lawn, beets have been noticeably left off the list. Turns out, President Barack Obama isn't a fan of beets. Now, we don't know for sure if that is the reason beets were banned, but it seems notoriously suspicious. Perhaps our president's experience with beets were of the canned variety and were not fresh or home grown. Perhaps they were prepared in a syrupy sauce too sweet for his liking. Maybe he should try them grated raw (yes, raw), in a salad, or roasted along with other root vegetables like carrots and potatoes seasoned with thyme and drizzled with olive oil.
Regardless of whether or not he likes or dislikes beets, it is my understanding that part of the garden's produce will be going to a local food bank anyway. So why not grow them regardless to help feed the hungry? I don't particularly enjoy biting into the slimy seeds of a cucumber, but I grow them. What my husband doesn't eat, we pass along to our friends. And beets certainly take up less space in a garden than cucumber vines.
Beets are cool weather vegetables. They like loose, well-drained soil. Add organic matter to the garden rows where you plan to sow your seeds. Plant them where there isn't a lot of activity in the garden so the soil doesn't get trampled by foot traffic. Raised beds are great for planting beets, but if you can't build a structure, hill up the soil to create a bed about two feet wide and place boards around the outside edges to keep from walking where the beets are planted. Carrots can be treated the same way.
You can sow beet seeds as soon as you can get into the garden in spring. Unlike cucumbers and zucchini, you don't have to wait for the soil to heat up. If you prepared the bed the previous fall, you don't even have to wait for it to dry out completely, as long as you don't work the soil while it's wet. What's more, you can start them even earlier and continue the harvest longer in the season by using a hot or cold frame.
Place each individual seed about an inch apart in a shallow trench. You will have to do some thinning. If you think placing the seeds three or four inches apart will eliminate that chore, you are in for disappointment. The seeds you place in the ground aren't actually seeds. They are the seed pods that contain the real seeds. I repeat, you WILL have to do some thinning.
The beets themselves will grow beneath the ground, but the green tops that emerge above are excellent for eating. Trim them when the plants get about four to six inches tall and toss them in salads or add them to soups and stir-fries. Because they are related to chard and spinach, beet greens actually contain more nutrients than the roots. What's more, a half cup of beets only contains about 40 calories.
Harvest the beet roots when they are small, about two and half to three inches in diameter. If you wait until they are too large, beets tend to get tough and fibrous. When you harvest beets, cut the top off leaving about an inch of the globe attached to the greens. Then plant them. That's right, I said plant them. Stick that piece of beet top into the soil or in a container and continue to harvest fresh greens for as long as it will produce.
Plant those beets, no matter what you see growing on the White House lawn. They're just too good to pass up.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.