I grew up in a region where nobody ate beets. A few upstarts ate the canned version, but I was well into my adulthood before I tasted garden-fresh beets (called beetroots in much of Europe). What a revelation! Both beet greens and beet roots are delicious, and growing beets is easy if you use a few tricks.
A truly ancient food crop, gardeners have been growing and harvesting beets for four thousand years. Garden beets are enjoying a surge in popularity because of their beauty, nutrition, and complex flavors. Very dark red beet roots have a deep, rich, spicy flavor compared to yellow beets, which taste so mild they could almost be considered a different vegetable. Varieties can be had with lovely ring patterns, but let your choice of varieties be guided by your taste buds and your eyes. I like red beets for canning, but I plant a mix of varieties to bring a diversity of flavors and colors to the table.
A cool-season crop that grows best in spring and fall, beet roots mature in 60 days or so, and mature beets will usually hold in the garden for a couple of weeks. Beets grow best in rich, fertile soil with a near-neutral pH between 6.2 and 7.5.
Beet seeds are spiky nutlets that enclose pairs of tiny lentil-like seeds. Germination is often rapid yet spotty following warm spring rains; the easiest way to fill in skips in rows is to plant more seeds. It’s never too soon to start thinning and weeding beets, which I do with my fingers and the tip of an old steak knife. If both of the seeds in a nutlet germinate, one of the twins must be pulled out or snipped out with a small pair of scissors. When faced with numerous seedlings that must be thinned, I’ve had good luck lifting and transplanting very young beet seedlings, but seedlings moved when they have more than three leaves never recover from the trauma.
Maintaining steady soil moisture and controlling weeds are the two biggest challenges in growing beets. Beets that are allowed to run dry tend to develop high levels of geosmin in their tissues, which is the chemical compound that gives beets their earthy flavor and aroma. A little geosmin is good, but too much and your beets will start tasting like dirt. Please note: geosmin is most concentrated in the skins of beet roots, which should always be removed as they are prepared for the table.
After my beets are properly thinned and weeded, I often use a newspaper mulch to block out weeds. Thin layers of grass clippings are even better.
You can start harvesting beet greens for salads or cooking anytime, but removing leaves may reduce how much energy the plants can apportion to plump roots. Beet roots push up out of the soil as they expand, taking the guesswork out of beet harvesting time. Lightly wash beet roots after you pull them, and cut the leaves back to 2 inches before storing beets in the refrigerator. Leaving the leaves intact takes moisture from the harvested beet roots, but you can steam and freeze the young, tender beet greens taken from the centers of the crowns. In recipes, cooked chopped beet greens are interchangeable with closely related spinach or chard. Clean beet roots will keep in the fridge or root cellar for a couple of months.
As spring turns to summer, you can allow beets to stay in the ground as long as they are not stressed by dry conditions or searing sun. In hot summer areas, many gardeners erect shade covers over growing beets to preserve their quality during heat spells, thus stretching beet harvesting season by a couple of weeks.
Growing Beets in Fall
I grow a second crop of beets in the fall. In my experience, beets grown when days are getting shorter and cooler tend to be small but quite sweet. Plants left behind often survive winter in my garden, and overwintered plants produce a fast flush of beet greens before developing flowering stems from multiple crowns. Beets are true biennials, so they must endure a period of chilling before they develop flowers and seeds. The wait for ripe seeds can last 6 weeks from bolting, but it’s time well spent if you want to grow a seed crop from an open pollinated variety.
By Barbara Pleasant