Friday, September 21, 2012

Starting the Beet Variety Trial

When I was a kid first getting into gardening, ordering seeds from seed catalogs with my mom's borrowed credit card, I would stare and stare and stare at the pages trying to decide which variety of a certain vegetable I wanted to get. I was so hard to decide, but I was sure I needed to get only one variety of each thing. Who really needs more than one variety of anything, right? I even felt bad about ordering a variety that costed a little more than the others, because that would be a waste of money (that one is fifty cents more, oh no!), so the price was a thing I took into consideration along with the pretty pictures and descriptions. If there was more than one variety I wanted to try, I would pick one, usually the cheapest, and then tell myself once I run out of those seeds and need to reorder, I would try the other one. Using up a whole seed packet in a small garden takes a few years, so I didn't end up getting to try a lot of things.

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties has started to change my mind about that. She has a whole chapter about conducting variety trials, where she describes buying many varieties of mustard greens to see which one preforms best in her garden. It sounded like so much fun, perhaps it's worth "wasting" the money buying a few extra $2 or $3 packets of seed.

I've already been doing trials of a sort with the garlic, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, and posting the results here. Except the difference with those is I plan on growing multiple varieties of those all the time anyway, because different varieties are good for different things. There are tomatoes for cooking, tomatoes for slicing onto sandwiches, and tomatoes for salads. There are bell peppers and hot peppers good for drying and making chili powder, and hot peppers good for pickling. Some sweet potatoes are sweet and moist and others are dry and starchy. And even though I use all my garlic pretty much interchangeably in the kitchen, different varieties of garlic mature at different times and store for different lengths of time, so it's still worth it to plant a few different ones. If I were to do a "real" trial with those, I'd plant a bunch of paste tomatoes to compare, or a bunch of bell peppers to compare, or something like that (which I actually would like to do some day).

However, there are some crops that I'd probably be fine with growing only one variety of. Collard greens, for example. I think I could figure out one variety of collard I like best and grow that one all the time. Then again, technically collards are in the same species as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, and those are certainly not interchangeable, so maybe it still counts as growing a lot of varieties of the same thing.

But even for vegetables where only one variety would do, I still have to figure out what that one best variety is (best for me, of course, your mileage may vary). Back when everyone grew their own vegetables, the one best variety for the area was passed down from generation to generation in a family, but now I have to start from scratch.

This fall planting season I didn't have any more beet or carrot seed, so I thought this was my chance to do a trial, since I needed to buy more seed anyway. I decided to go with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds this time, since it looks like they have a good selection, and I re-read the chapter on conducting trials in Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Beets and carrots are both vegetables I think I'd be fine with growing only one good variety of, but I need to find out what that variety is (and I could be wrong and maybe it is worth it to grow more than one).

After thinking about it some more, I decided I needed to simplify things for myself and not do both beets and carrots in the same year. I have a bad habit of biting off more than I can chew, so it would be best to do one simple trial well than a couple of big complicated trials poorly. I went with beets because I have grown a good crop of them in the past, while carrots continue to give me trouble. If I did a carrot trial it's possible that none of them might make it, but with beets I'm much more likely to actually get some beets to eat.

I can do carrots next time.

Next I had to choose which varieties of beets I want from the 15 Baker Creek has listed on their website (it's not quite seed catalog season yet, so I had to order off the website). Carol Deppe says that a variety trial is really a scientific experiment, and in every scientific experiment you should have a control. In a variety trial your control is some sort of "standard" variety. It's either your favorite variety you've already been growing, or the most common variety everyone grows.

I've grown two varieties of beets before. Bull's Blood was my first, and then when I ran out of that, I grew Detroit Dark Red, which probably counts as the "standard" beet. All seed catalogs have Detroit Dark Red. It's like the Purple Top turnip of beets. However, since I never grew Bull's Blood and Detroit Dark red side by side in the same year, I can't really say which one is best. See, that's why you need to do trials!

So I knew I had to get those two, and then have fun getting some more that I've never grown before. I ruled out any of the long, skinny ones like Cylindra or Crapaudine, because I have heavy soil. I wanted to get ones I thought had a good chance of growing well. Flat of Egypt doesn't sound good to me because a flattened beet sounds like it would be hard to slice. They have a few varieties of fodder beets, and I'm not a rabbit, so I ruled those out.

I realized I have a prejudice against non-red beets. It just seems wrong. Beets are supposed to be red. And I know from tomatoes that color can actually make a difference in flavor. Vegetables don't work like M&M's. The colors don't all taste the same. The darker the color of a tomato, the more flavor it seems to have. I'm suspecting it's the same with beets, but I'm not sure since I've never tasted a non-red beet. I couldn't bring myself to get Albino, but I did go ahead and get a couple of other non-red beets.

Here are the beets I ended up getting. I thought five was a good number to start with. I could have gotten a couple more, but like I said, I'm trying to resist my tendency to go overboard with these things.

  • Bull's Blood - This was the first beet I ever grew. It did well and I loved the purple foliage.
  • Chioggia - I don't know how to pronounce this beet! I've seen people rave about it for so long, I decided to finally try it. It's white and red stripes on the inside, and I think the reason people love it is because it's so pretty, so it looks good in magazine photos. Interestingly, the reviews on Baker Creek's website are not kind, saying this beet is sweet but without much flavor. Maybe color is related to flavor after all! Oh well, I guess I'll see for myself.
  • Detroit Dark Red - The standard beet everybody has. Just a regular round red beet with green leaves.
  • Golden - If I was going to plant a non-red beet I decided an orange beet would be best. At least I could get some beta carotene out of it. Catalogs always say this variety is good because it doesn't stain everything red, but again, it just seems wrong to me to have a beet that doesn't stain everything red. That's just what beets do! Oh well, I'll give it a chance.
  • Lutz Salad Leaf - I got this one because Baker Creek says it stores well, and stays tender even when large. That sounds good to me. I like the idea of growing vegetables that store well. This also seems to be a rarer variety. The other four varieties are carried by many catalogs, but I don't really see Lutz around as much.

Along with the beets, I also ordered a packet of Danver's Half Long carrots. That's a standard carrot around here, so I decided if I was only going to grow one carrot, I'd grow that one, and then get more varieties to compare to it in the future. (I also got a couple of varieties of fava beans, but that's a subject for another post.) Deppe suggests you plant your trials so that plants you can tell apart easily are side-by-side, or you can plant some other crop between them to keep them separate. Great minds think alike since I already got that idea on my own and have been doing both with garlic (alternate hardnecks and softnecks next to each other, with rows of brassicas between each variety), so I decided to separate my beet varieties with carrots.

I got my hoe and made furrows across the bed about 6 inches apart, and then planted two rows of each beet variety with one row of carrots between them. For small seeds like this I just sprinkle the seeds in the furrows, and then water them and let the running water cover the seeds with soil.

I planted the beets in the following order: Golden - Lutz - Chioggia - Detroit - Bull's Blood. Since Lutz and Detroit are both red-rooted and green-leafed, I didn't want them right next to each other in case I couldn't tell them apart. The other beets should be pretty obvious which is which.

Ideally, to have the a better experimental design, I would repeat that sequence of beets further down the bed. Just in case one side of the bed is different than the other. Carol Deppe even suggests alternating the standard with the experimental varieties, so I'd have a row of Detroit, than a row of something else, then another row of Detroit, than another row of something else, and so on. But she also says you should just plant whatever is practical, and even professional scientists often have to pare down their experimental designs for practical reasons. Besides, gardeners eat their own experiments, and how many beets can I eat? I think one double-row of each variety is plenty for now.

And if you didn't already know what a plant nerd I was, you know now, since here I am doing scientific experiments with garden vegetables in my spare time!

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