Beautiful in color, with a delicious earthy, sweet flavor and generously endowed with nutrients, beets have come into their own as one of the trendy vegetables of today. They are easy to grow, so if you’re not growing beets yet it might be time to get started.
Here’s the good news: when you grow beets, you get two vegetables in one. The leaves can be steamed or sauteed and eaten as you would spinach, bok choy or Swiss chard while the roots can be eaten raw in salads, or steamed, baked or roasted for a delicious vegetable.
Interesting Beet Facts
- The Latin name is Beta vulgaris. It is called beetroot in the UK and beets in the US and Canada. Regardless, beetroot is the term that refers to the taproot part of the plant while the edible leaves are called beet greens.
- Although commonly known for their deep red color, beet varieties come in white, pink and golden colors and one variety, Chioggia, has pink and white concentric rings.
- Beets are used for medicinal purposes and as a food coloring as well as being eaten for food.
- The sugar beet is a variety that is off-white in color and conical shaped like an ice cream cone. It is grown mainly for the sugar in its root.
- The leaves of the beet plant are so beautiful that some gardeners plant them for ornamental purposes.
- The famous, classic red borsht soup from Ukraine is made primarily with beets.
- Beware of the red color from beets that can stain almost anything, including your clothes and hands.
Why Are Beets So Good For Us?
Beets are high in fiber and are a good source of vitamin C, folate, manganese, iron and phosphorus. Studies have shown that drinking one glass of beet juice a day can reduce blood pressure in people with high blood pressure.
Beets also have high levels of antioxidants which may help reduce the risk of some cancers and help keep our eyes healthy as we age. In addition, the nitric acid in beets helps increase blood flow throughout our bodies and to our brains (this is a good thing).
Beets are a cool weather crop, so the best time to plant is spring, or in the fall in hotter climates. They will not thrive in very hot weather. Plant 2-3 weeks before the average last frost. For fall planting, plant about 8 weeks before the average first frost.
The best location is a spot that receives at least 4 hours of sun a day, although they will do fine with less sun.
Starting from Seed
If you’re a novice gardener, you might want to try the variety called Boltardy which is highly resistant to bolting.
Start your beets from seed which you can plant directly into the ground, in a container or in raised beds. Beet seeds are unusual in that each seed is a cluster of several seeds which means they are larger and therefore easier to plant. It also means that several beet plants may grow from the one clump.
The seeds take about 2 weeks to germinate, but the casing that holds the cluster of seeds together can make germination uncertain. Soaking the seeds for an hour in warm water can help overcome this problem and speed germination.
Sowing In The Ground or Raised Beds
When growing beets in the ground or in raised beds, plant the seeds in rows ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart in loose, sandy soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Make sure the soil is free from any large clumps or stones that could hinder growth of the root. Add organic compost to improve drainage.
As the seedlings grow, thin to 4 to 6 inches apart. The seedlings you remove can be eaten as baby greens.
Sowing in Containers
Starting from Plugs
You can buy young plants known as “plugs” in spring from your local garden center. Plug plants come in trays, they are slightly larger than seedlings but smaller than plants you would normally buy. The advantages are that they save you time waiting for seeds to germinate and you have some guaranteed results.
It’s best to plant your beet plugs as soon as possible after buying them or they will suffer if left together for too long. Plant them in the ground or in containers. Be careful when prying them apart so as not to damage the young roots.
After sowing, give the soil a good water and keep it moist while the seedlings are growing. Then water regularly throughout the growing season.
Add mulch to keep the soil moist and free from weeds. However, mulch can hide certain pests, so if you choose not to mulch, check daily for any new weeds. Young seedlings do not do well in competition with weeds, so it’s important to carefully pull weeds out before they become established.
Add a balanced fertilizer or a light layer of compost 6-8 weeks after planting. However, if you start with a fertile soil or compost, fertilizing later may not be necessary.
Pests and Diseases
Beets tend not to attract as many pests as other vegetables, but they make a tasty meal for rabbits and deer if that’s a problem in your area.
As for the smaller kind of pest, leaf miners, aphids, flea beetles and webworms are the most common insect pests that trouble beets. For pests that crawl inside leaves such as leaf miners and webworms, simply remove the affected leaves. For pests that are visible on the leaves, diatomaceous earth or neem oil can be effective, natural organic treatments.
Cercospora leaf spot is one of the most common beet diseases. You might be able to control it by removing the affected leaves, but if it persists try treating with an organic fungal spray such as neem oil.
Harvesting and Storing
Beets are slower to mature than radishes and turnips and generally take 50 to 70 days to grow to full size. But you don’t have to wait that long if baby beets are what you’re after. You can harvest them once they are golf ball size.
In the meantime, while the beets are still growing, you can harvest up to a third of the greens of a beet plant before the root is ready.
Each plant produces just one harvest, so you’ll need to plant some beet seeds every week or so if you want to keep them coming throughout the season.
To harvest beets, use a fork to dig them out or twist the whole plant from the base of the stems. If you leave some beets to go to seed, you can use the seeds for next year’s planting.
Make sure you cut off the greens from the beets immediately after harvesting, but leave 1-2 inches on the stem which will help to reduce bleeding when cooking.
Both the beets and the greens can be stored separately in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. For longer storage, the roots can be stored for up to four months in a box covered with sand in a cool location.
There are many varieties of beets to choose from. Even if you’ve been growing beets for a while, why not try something different. Here are a few to try:
- Burpee’s Golden – Heirloom. These are a rich golden yellow color and very sweet. Does not stain.
- Chioggia – Italian heirloom, named after a fishing village near Venice, are known for their pink and white concentric circles. They are earthy when raw and sweeter when cooked.
- Detroit dark red – Heirloom with a striking dark-red succulent flesh and a deep sweet flavor.
- Red Ace – A standard beet that is reliable and fast-growing with a sweet and tender flavor.
- Touchstone Gold – Smooth, reddish gold skin and bright yellow interior. Excellent, sweet flavor.
- Albino – Heirloom from Holland. Pure white and very sweet. Does not stain.
- Cylindra Formanova – Heirloom from Denmark. Cylindrical in shape makes slicing more uniform. Sweet and tender.
- Boltardy – Heirloom, bred to be bolt-resistant. It has deep purple roots with a smooth texture and a delicate sweet taste.
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Colorful, delicious and so good for us, we all need to add this vegetable to our diets. By growing your own beets, you can make your own organic beet juice, have some grated raw on salads and enjoy them roasted with olive oil and rock salt. Yum!