If your image of beets (Beta vulgaris) is small, red balls in cans with a bland, earthy taste, you should give them another try. Beets fresh out of the garden are delicious. They’re not only healthy for you—they’re loaded with vitamins A, B, C; iron, and potassium—but new varieties expand the color range of the roots to include pink, yellow, white, and candy striped. Beet leaves are now common in baby salad greens mixes. Shred raw beets in garden salads, make borscht soup, roast beets with other root crops (one of my favorite recipes), and yes, pickle or can beets for winter usage. If you don’t like the bleeding and staining from the juice of red beets, choose yellow varieties.
When to Plant
Beets are a cool-season crop that matures best in spring or fall. In fact, mature plants can withstand a light frost. If grown in the heat of summer, beets tend to be woody textured and less sweet. Plant beets whenever the soil can be worked, from early April to the end of May. Consider planting a fall crop in July or August so they can mature during the cool days of autumn.
Where to Plant
Plant beets on raised beds, in a neutral pH soil amended with compost. To grow well, beets need a loose, organic soil without many stones, sticks, or soil clumps to inhibit root formation. Beets grow well in full sun to areas that get only 4 hours of sun a day. Smaller rooted varieties, and those grown mostly for their greens, perform well in containers.
How to Plant
To enhance seed germination, soak beet seeds in warm water the night before planting. Mix potting soil into the top layers of a raised bed to reduce the amount of soil crusting that seeds may find hard to penetrate.
Sow seeds ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows spaced 15 inches apart. Beets seeds are actually dried “fruits.” Each fruit contains 3 to 4 seeds. So don’t be surprised to see 3 or more seedlings emerge from each seed. Once seeds germinate and true leaves have formed, thin the seedlings to 4 inches apart. Don’t toss them! You can eat the thinnings in salads. If you don’t thin early enough, the roots may not develop properly.
Care and Maintenance
Keep beets well weeded and watered. This root crop doesn’t compete well against weeds, so mulch around established plants with an organic mulch, such as straw or untreated grass clippings. Control leaf miner insects from tunneling in beet roots and flea beetles from eating leaves by laying floating row covers over a crop as soon as it germinates. You can also spray Neem oil or pyrethrum to control these pests.
The roots of most beet varieties mature 40 to 60 days after sowing seeds. Harvest beets at any size for eating, but young beets (a diameter less than 2 inches) are the most tender. As you harvest individual beets, you’ll provide more space for other plants to keep growing bigger roots. Greens can be harvested a few weeks after germination depending on the leaf size you prefer.
‘Red Ace’ is a widely adapted, hybrid red beet selection. ‘Chioggia Guardsman’ and ‘Bull’s Blood’ have roots with a candy stripe appearance. ‘Bulls Blood’ also has burgundy colored leaves. ‘Touchstone’ is a good yellow beet variety that holds its golden color when cooked and has a sweeter and milder flavor than red beets. ‘Cylindra’ features red cylindrically-shaped roots that are easier to clean than round roots. ‘Lutz Winter Keeper’ is a red variety that can grow large, but doesn’t turn tough and woody.
Excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.