How to Grow Beets in your Garden

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How to Grow Beets in your Garden

How to Grow Beets in your GardenHow to Grow Beets in your Garden

Related to both spinach and Swiss chard in the amaranth (Amaranthaceae) family, beets are both a root crop and a leafy green, a dual-purpose, space-saving vegetable ideal for the home garden. Because they transplant poorly, beets are always started from seeds sown directly in the garden; and the first thing to know about the pellets rolling out of the seed packet is that they are not individual seeds; rather, each is a cluster of two to five seeds encased in a rough round husk or fruiting body. From each of these husks emerges a tight little cluster of seedlings, which makes early thinning necessary.

As a root crop, beets thrive in rich, well-worked loam, fed with compost, deeply dug or tilled, and raked to a fine texture free of large rocks or clods of clay. Sensitive to pH, beets need fairly sweet (alkaline) soil, in the range of 6.8 to 7.8 on the pH scale, so if you have acidic soil, an application of garden lime, along with a natural granular fertilizer rich in minerals, is helpful. As always, an intensive bed is better than several skinny single rows separated by wide paths. To seed, draw out a series of parallel furrows, about 2 centimeters deep, and a hand-span (15 to 20 centimeters) apart, and drop husks in singly, one every 2 or 3 centimeters. Cover, water and watch.

Once beets are on their way and thinned initially to stand about 5 centimeters apart, the rest is usually smooth sailing. Steady moisture is important: a twice-weekly soaking in the absence of rain. A monthly drink of fish emulsion or other liquid fertilizer may be necessary where the soil is lacking nutrients; or beets may be fed with a side dressing of granular fertilizer (for vegetables) sprinkled according to package directions along the rows, stirred gently into the soil and then watered down.

After the first thinning, leave beets to fill out and even touch. Once they look as if they might be big enough to eat, begin pulling every other one to be cooked whole, with the greens attached, as delicious baby beets. Those left in the soil will gradually reach full size and can be eaten at any stage along the way.

Selecting Plants

Beet cultivars offer roots of different colors and shapes: red, purple, gold, or white; round, oval, or cylindrical. If your weather is severe, look for cultivars that tolerate extreme temperatures. To stock, your root cellar, look for beets with good keeping qualities.

Select small-rooted cultivars for canning or pickling whole. Cylindrical cultivars such as ‘Formanova’ provide lots of uniforms- size slices for cooking and processing with little waste. Where leaf spot has been a problem, grow disease-tolerant cultivars.

Site

Beets perform best in full sun but tolerate partial shade.

Soil

Light, sandy loam permits rapid, uninterrupted growth for tender roots. Moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8 is ideal.

Test the soil and amend it as necessary. Work in 15-20 pounds of compost for every 100 square feet of soil. Loosen the soil thoroughly to a depth of at least 1 foot. Prepare traditional flat rows or wide rows. In heavy or poorly drained soils, prepare 6 to 8 inch high raised beds instead.

How much to plant

Grow 5 to 10 feet of fresh beets per person. For canning, sow a 10 to 2-foot row for each beet eater.

Spacing

Space plants 2 to 4 inches apart; allow 12 to 20 inches between rows. When plants are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin them to 4 to 6 inches apart.

Days to maturity

Harvest beetroots 56 to 70 days after sowing seeds. Baby beets are ready sooner. Beet greens are ready to harvest in just 30 to 45 days.

Planting and Growing

Plant beets in early spring, as soon as you can work the soil. Optimum germination occurs when soil temperatures reach 80 degrees F, but you can plant when the soil warms to above 45 degrees F and the air temperature is 50 to 65 degrees F. Beets can withstand freezing temperatures, but plants exposed to 2 to 3 weeks of temperatures below 50 degrees F after the first leaves have developed may go to seed prematurely.

To provide the nitrogen that beets need, try planting your beets where legumes, such as beans or peas, previously grew. Unless you amend the soil generously first, avoid planting beets after heavy feeders such as potatoes or melons.

Soak seeds in compost tea for 15 to 20 minutes before planting them. Direct-sow seeds a half-inch deep. For an ongoing harvest of tender roots, plant seeds every 20 to 30 days from early spring through midsummer. You can plant beets again about 4 to 7 weeks before the first expected frost date in your area. Temperatures above 75 degrees F may make roots light-colored and internal rings more pronounced.

Most beet seeds produce a cluster of seedlings, so you’ll need to thin these when they emerge. When plants are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin again to 4 to 6 inches apart.

Keep the soil evenly moist but not wet. Apply 4 to 8 inches of mulch when plants first emerge to help maintain soil moisture and limit weeds. Lack of moisture causes tough, stringy roots and may make plants go to seed. Hand-weed to avoid damaging beets’ shallow roots.

When the first true leaves have fully expanded, drench beets with liquid fish and seaweed fertilizer. Apply 1 cup for every 2 feet of row. Repeat weekly until the plants are 2 to 3 inches tall. Using this solution nourishes the roots and prevents the hard, black spots and stunted growth caused by a boron deficiency.

Use row covers when plants emerge to prevent the infestation of leafminers and flea beetles. Remove the cover when the weather gets hot.

Harvesting

Pull up roots when they are 1.5 to 3 inches wide. Lift them out of the soil carefully to avoid bruising them. Remove any dirt, then cut the tops off; leave at least 1 inch of the stem to prevent the roots from bleeding. Refrigerate for several weeks or layers in a box filled with sand or peat and store in a cool spot for 2 to 5 months. Freeze, can or pickle the surplus.

Extending the season

Sow seeds in the fall when air temperatures are 50 to 60 degrees F. Cover the row with 8 to 12 inches of straw for the winter. When daytime temperatures reach 50 to 60 degrees F in the spring, remove several inches of straw every few days until plants are exposed.

The Best of the Beets

Red Ace

  • Hybrid
  • Days to Maturity 50
  • Extra-sweet, tender red roots

Pacemaker III

  • Hybrid
  • Days to Maturity 50

Similar to Red Ace, but taller leaves

Chioggia

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 55

Unique pink and white stripes inside roots

Golden

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 55
  • Gold-colored roots

Sweetheart

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 58
  • Extra-sweet red roots; tall greens; good for storage

Ruby Queen

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 60
  • Uniformly round; bright red; widely adapted

Detroit Dark Red

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 60
  • Uniformly round; dark red; widely adapted

Albina Vereduna

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 60
  • White; very sweet; thick-skinned, good for storage

CYLINDERS

Cylindra

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 55-60
  • 8 inches long; tender red roots

Formonova

  • Open-pollinated
  • Days to Maturity 55-60
  • 6 inches long; tender red roots

Sow a rainbow of heirloom beets

As colorful heirloom beets (beta vulgaris) gain popularity, the term “red as a beet” might be living on borrowed time. With bright pink, soft white, canary yellow and even candy-striped varieties making a comeback, beets are no longer limited to deep burgundy. While the English language may lose an idiom, fussy eaters and your fingertips will be grateful.

Kim Delaney, owner of Hawthorn Farm Heritage Seeds in Palmerston, Ont., has a passion for beets and says heritage varieties aren’t just pretty, they are often milder and sweeter. Think beets taste like dirt? Blame the grower, not the seed. According to Delaney how you grow beets determines their sweetness. “Sure, beets can taste like soil,” she admits, quickly adding, “but if they’re well grown, they’ll taste sweet.”

Whether you want to grow your own or sample the wide range available at the farmer’s market, the following are worth exploring. They’re colorful, they’re tasty and they’re back for the long haul. The one thing they’re not is “red as beets.”

Candy-striped beets (shown above)

Variety to grow: Chioggia Guardsmark

Slightly flatter than regular beets, this unassuming variety is easy to overlook—until you cut one open. Beneath the unremarkable exterior lies one of the most stunning vegetables on the market. When sliced, these beets reveal eye-catching concentric pink and white rings. Although these look like something you’d find in a candy shop, they have a peppery flavor that complements the sweetness.

Be warned, cooking can obliterate their contrasting rings. To maintain as much of the zoning as possible, steam or roast them as boiling will cause the red pigment to leach. Pickling is another alternative. What you lose in candy stripes you’ll gain in brilliant pink.

heirloom-beets-golden.jpgGolden beets

Variety to grow: Touchmark Golden

With their dark orange skin and bright yellow interior, these beets look a bit like peaches. Milder and sweeter than the red varieties, golden beets are a good choice for people who find beets overpowering. They also add a bright yellow burst to salads or side dishes.

 

heirloom-beets-white.jpgWhite beets

Variety to grow: Table beets, not sugar beets

Like the golden varieties, white beets are milder than their red counterparts. These pale beets contrast nicely on the plate when served beside red or pink beets. Just be sure to cook them separately to maintain their color.

heirloom-beets-bullsblood.jpg

Beet greens

Variety to grow: Bulls Blood

Beets and Swiss chard are botanically the same. One is selected for its roots, the other for its leafy green tops. Bulls Blood provides the best of both. The showy dark burgundy leaves are so dramatic the city of Stratford, Ont. used them in their ornamental planters. While the leaves are lovely to look at, the entire plant makes an excellent salad. Use the tops as the base of a green salad, then sprinkle with thin slices of the small pink- and red-striped roots.

Look Ma, no stains

Don’t want your hands, clothes or countertops looking like you just left a crime scene? Try golden or white beets. Since only the red pigment is water-soluble, these paler varieties won’t have you scrubbing or searching for the bleach. On the other hand, water from red beets is a natural way to colour Easter eggs.

“Beeting” fussy easters

Know someone who doesn’t like beets? Convert them with these beet tricks.

  • Grate them: Skip the cooking. Just peel, grate and toss them raw into a salad. They taste a lot like uncooked carrots.
  • Hide them: Grated raw, golden beets can replace carrots in a carrot cake. You can use red beets, but the color might give you away. Got cooked beets leftover? Moisten a chocolate cake with them. Replace ½ cup of the fat (oil or butter) with 1/4 cup buttermilk and 1/4 cup pureed cooked beets.
  • Roast them: “Roasting will make a beet lover out of you,” promises Delaney who has converted more than one beet-hater with her roasted beet salad. Her winning dish is simply diced, roasted beets tossed in an orange-juice based vinaigrette, and topped with fresh chopped mint, and crumbled feta


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