Each year the National Garden Bureau designates a vegetable and a flower to feature during the year. This year the bureau has chosen beets and cosmos. Beets are certainly not the pride and joy of most gardeners. Few if any brag about their wonderful beet crop, how early their beets were, how flavorful they were or how many they produced. In fact, few vegetables have the acceptance or rejection of the beet. People either love beets or will not eat them.

Beets are an excellent choice for backyard gardeners. The foliage can be harvested as greens and contains generous amounts of iron, potassium and vitamin A. The roots are similarly very nutritious. It is an easy crop to produce and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes.Ancient Romans used beets for a variety of reasons. They actually considered them to be medicinal and not edible. These inedible white beets used by the Romans still grow wild in Mediterranean regions.

It appears that the cultivated beets did not come in widespread use until the 16th century in Germany. In addition to the common garden beets, sugar beets and mangels are grown. Mangels are large, coarse beets commonly used to feed livestock.

Swiss chard is also closely related to the beets. Beets are biannual plants that grow the first year and then send up a seed stock and produce seeds the following year.

Beets are often classified according to shape, use or color. Two main shapes are globe and cylindrical (much like a big carrot). These cylindrical beets are becoming more popular with the popularity of food processors.

Beets are used for either greens or as roots. While the top of any beet can be utilized as greens, some are bred to produce an abundance of tasty green leaves. Beet roots are generally dark red, but there are golden or white varieties.

Beets are semi-hardy vegetables and can be planted after the danger of hard frost has passed. Sow them about 30 days before the last killing frost. They tolerate a large range of soil types, but heavy clay soils tend to produce distorted, twisted roots. The beet seed itself is actually a fruit that resembles a withered pea. Each fruit contains several seeds so several plants come up in one location.

Thin out extra plants early and use them for greens. Many gardeners are timid about thinning. Crowded stands of beets yield crops of small, twisted roots. Space the plants 2 to 3 inches apart for good growth. Plants do not require heavy fertilization nor any special care other than routine weeding and irrigation.

Pests are usually not serious. Leaf miners do no particular damage to the root but do destroy the leaf tissue. Affected leaves should be destroyed or sprayed when mines first appear. Beet leaf hoppers are common and often transmit viruses to the leaves. Both the leaf hoppers and the diseases they transmit are fairly cyclic and generally do not warrant control. Aphids are familiar to most gardeners and are controlled using insecticidal soap or malathion.

Slugs and snails are often the worst pests. They chew large ragged holes in the leaves and often damage the root where they stick out of the ground.

One final note is that beets should be harvested frequently. They do not need to reach a certain size to be edible. Small beets about golf-ball size are generally at their peak of flavor and texture.

There are many good varieties of beets for planting in Utah. Detroit Dark Red is a standard variety that has been around for many years. It still is an excellent choice for Utah gardens. Other good beets include Mono Germ, Pacemaker III Hybrid, Early Sweet Hybrid, Golden Beet, Warrior and Cylindra. Cylindra is a long, high quality carrot shaped beet. As mentioned, this is an excellent choice for cooks who like to use food processors.

Beets should also be planted in mid- to late summer for continuous harvest into the fall. Other cool season vegetables that can be planted right now include carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, potatoes and Swiss chard.

- I will be teaching a home landscape class on Thursdays, April 4, 11, 18 and 25, 2-4:30 p.m. or 7-9:30 p.m. The class is limited to the first 40 participants. To register send a check for $10 to USU Extension, 2001 S. State St. Room S1200, Salt Lake City, UT 84190-3350.

Other classes include: Granger Bishop's Storehouse, 3548 S. 7200 West, upstairs meeting room, Tuesday, April 9, 7-8:45 p.m., Vegetables in the Home Garden: Growing techniques to improve vegetable production in the home garden.

Spring 1991 Garden Workshops offered by USU Extension, County Government Center, 2001 S. State, S1007. Classes are held from 2-4 p.m. or 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, Budding and Grafting: Learn techniques, $2 material fee. Preregistration requested. Call 468-3170.