A root vegetable, the Beta vulgaris is known for its deep vibrant red color and is also a source of vitamin C, potassium, and folic acid. As a cool-weather vegetable, it thrives in temperatures that range from 50 to 65° F. This is a biennial plant that is, however, grown as an annual. Using beets in your diet isn’t limited to only the delicious roots but the leaves may be consumed as well. There are two principal types of beets:
- Globe-shaped rounded roots
- Long roots
Several popular varieties of beets for growing include:
- Burpee’s Golden with a sweet golden colored flesh that doesn’t stain;
- Chioggia with red and white rings that are apparent when sliced;
- Cylindra featuring dark red roots that prove great for pickling;
- Lutz Green Leaf is dark red with delicious greens;
- Red Ace grows quickly and is resistant to leaf spots.
There are many more varieties available at nurseries or gardening centers.
How to Plant Beets
Beets grow from pea-sized seed clusters. If you are sowing seeds, presoak your clusters for approximately twelve hours. The clusters should be planted about one inch deep and one inch apart. Once your seedlings have grown to approximately three inches in height, thin them out so that the beet plants are about four to six inches apart. You can separate the seedlings and replant the excess in another row. Rows should be about twelve to eighteen inches apart. If you have unused seedlings, you can add them to salads. Beets do not germinate in clay soil. In this case, transplanting would be the only option.
While you can either sew beets directly in your garden, you can choose to begin them indoors. To sew seeds indoors, you will need to sew them in seed trays, peat pots, or containers six to eight weeks before the estimated last frost date for your area. Four weeks later they should be ready for transplanting in your outdoor garden, however, they are not known to transplant as well as other plants.
How to Grow Beets
Beets should be cultivated in direct sunlight or in warmer regions in partially shaded areas. The soil should be loose, well-worked, and mixed with organic matter. Stones should be removed from your planting bed in order to avoid splitting growing roots or even interfering with the growth. Generous amounts of aged compost should be added to your soil bed before you begin to plant to increase the yield of your crop. It should be aged because fresh manure has high levels of nitrogen. An elevated level of nitrogen may cause your beet plant to twist or fork. This plant loves soil with a pH of 6.5 but levels from 6.0 to 6.8 will provide for a healthy plant. You can side-dress your beet plants mid-season with compost.
If the soil is high in alkaline or has been limed recently, it may prove to be deficient in boron. You can counter this by sprinkling 1.5 tablespoons of borax along a 100-foot row for planting, carefully kneading it into the soil, but don’t exaggerate with the borax or it will prove toxic.
Beets are known to push themselves up and out of the soil. In this case, you will need to hill up soil around the roots that are showing. The soil should never dry out and must remain moist. A lack of water will stunt the growth. To help conserve moisture and defend against weeds, you can mulch by watering well and then adding a four-inch-deep layer of mulch between the plant rows. If your garden has a problem with slugs, you may want to mulch when the plants are already a few inches in height. Always remove weeds by hand to avoid damaging the roots.
When to Plant Beets
You should sow beets directly in your garden two to three weeks before the last estimated spring frost date. Soil temperature should be a minimum of 50°F. If you are able to cover your beets with a row cover, they will grow faster. The row cover will protect them from both wind and chill.
Beets can be planted every three weeks in a series of what are known as succession plantings till the temperature reaches approximately 80° F. For areas with hot summers, beets should not be sown within sixty days of your estimated full summer heat. They do not do well in high temperatures.
If you prefer an autumn harvest, you can plant beets toward the end of summer or at the beginning of the fall and in any case six to eight weeks before the first estimated fall frost. Plant as many as you wish to store for the winter. If you sow directly in the garden, keep the soil moist always or germination may not result.
For a winter harvest, beets can tolerate frost but not temperatures that are too low. If it is too cold, beets will go to seed. If you are able to plant late, your winter harvest will be especially sweet as beets store sugar in cooler temperatures.
Pests and Problems
If your beetroots develop black or brown spots, there may be a lack of boron in your soil, or they may be caused by the Cercospora leaf spot. Boring insects may attack the roots.
Uneven holes in leaves may be caused by the presence of
- Spinach leafminer larvae
When to Harvest Beets
Harvest size is one to three inches. Beets require anywhere from forty to eighty days after sowing to be ready for harvesting. Remove the beets gently and twist them off as opposed to cutting them. Cutting may cause the juices to bleed.
Baby beets can be harvested at about forty days while full-grown adult beets will mature about three weeks later. The ideal size is that of a golf ball. Some varieties like the ‘Lutz Greenleaf’ will be tasty when approaching the size of a softball while ‘Golden’ beets have an optimal size for flavor when growing to the size of a baseball.
You can harvest beet greens for your salads about a month after planting. Do not remove all the leaves.
What do Beets Taste Like?
Depending on how the beets are prepared, they will have a somewhat different flavor. Beets can be
- Canned with a milder sweeter flavor because of the addition of sugar or salt in the canning process
- Pickled with a sweet and sour twist
Generally, they are described as having a sweet earthy flavor. The flavor will vary also depending on the variety.
How to Store Beets
You can refrigerate beets for one to three weeks while greens will keep in a Ziploc bag for about a week. If you have a cellar, beets can be kept in sawdust that is damp for one to three months as long as it is cold and moist. They also can be packed in moist peat or sand in containers as long as the temperature remains between 40 and 50° F. Smaller-sized beets do not store as long as the larger beets.
If you live in a colder region, you can store your harvested beets in a pit outdoors. It should be lined with straw and dry leaves. Then create a bed of straw and place the beets on top. Cover with another layer of straw that is heavy.
How to Cook Beets
As root vegetables, they come with a bit of dirt so they must be washed thoroughly. Remember that beets stain anything they touch so avoid allowing the juice to seep everywhere. A good suggestion of how to boil beets is to wash the beets and then cook them while they still have their skin on. The skin can then be easily removed, and you will be at less risk of staining. This will also help alleviate any flavor of dirt that will be absorbed into the skin and then removed.
Only peel beets before cooking if you intend to eat them raw, and even then, a two-minute blanching will ease the process and contain any mess.
Beets can be cooked in a number of different ways. You can boil them initially until they are semi-cooked, peel them, and then steam, fry, roast, or puree them. Roasting or frying will help caramelize sugars and soften the consistency. Steaming will leave some crunch in your beets. You can even puree your beets after cooking them in a broth and adding in a rich heavy cream. If you are storing your beets over several months, they may become a bit more bitter. In this case, you can cook them in a red wine or garlic sauce to counter any bitterness.
Beet leaves can be eaten either cooked or raw and can easily substitute bok choy, kale, or spinach among others in recipes. A quick recipe is to sautée them in extra-virgin olive oil with a touch of fresh garlic and lemon.