Beets, commonly known as red beets or garden beets are best known as globe-shaped and dark red in color but there are many varieties of beets that are different in size, shape, color and sugar content. The color range includes golden, orange, yellow, pink, white and roots with pink and white rings when sliced. The sweetness of different varieties can be quite marked with sugar content ranging from 5 to 14 percent.
While beets are grown mainly for their roots the beet foliage is also used as fresh or cooked greens.
Garden beets are a cool season vegetables, they develop the best favor and color under cool conditions and bright sun, requiring a minimum of 3-4 hours of direct sunlight daily. They are fairly frost hardy and can be planted in many areas 2-3 weeks before the frost-free date for your area. However young seedling will not tolerate continuous hard freeze conditions for long before serious frost damage occurs.
Later crops will welcome shade in the hottest part of the day, but beets do not do well as the heat increases heading into summer. Ideal growing conditions are 55-75 F (13-24 C)
Beets grow well in many types of soil but do poorly in soil with a low soil pH. the best conditions for beets is a rich, finely cultivated, well draining sandy loam with pH. around 6.0 to 6.8.
Beets are best direct sown to the garden or area where they are going to be grown.
In the spring wait until soil temperature reaches 50 F (10 C) before planting. As with all seeds sow beet seeds in the morning, they will germinate in 5-10 days.
It takes a lot of moisture to penetrate the cork like outer layer of the seed cluster for the seed inside to germinate. When sowing seeds in dry conditions it will help to soak the seeds for 24 hours before sowing.
Seeds should be planted about 1/2 inch (12-13 mm) deep and 1 inch (25 mm) apart. Allow 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) between rows. To ensure a continuous supply of both greens and beets plant smaller amounts of seed at 2 - 3 week intervals rather than one big planting.
Growing beets for fall harvest and winter storage, sow crop about 10 weeks before the first heavy freeze in you area.
The four most important aspects of care for growing beets are;
As mentioned before beets can be gown for salad greens as well as the root itself. If you are growing beets only for the greens it will not be necessary to thin them at all.
Begin thinning when seedlings are about 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) tall. If seeds have been sown too thickly cut rather than pull the unwanted seedlings to avoid disturbing the roots of other plants.
Photo Right - If the soil is moist and seedling are not to thick simply pulling out the unwanted seedling is acceptable.
If you are growing beets for both greens and the root you can use the beet greens harvest as your thinning program. Instead of thinning to the final 3-4 inch (7-10 cm) spacing between beets harvest the plants for greens leaving enough space so the beet roots are not crowded and go back in a few days for more greens gradually getting to the final spacing that give roots the best growing conditions.
Photo Left - In this small sample section of a row all the small seedling have been removed they were too small for greens, next thinning however the 2nd and 4th plants, from the left, will be harvested for greens and later the 3rd will be pulled for greens and an early tasting of roots leaving a good 3-4 inches between the main crop of beets.
Beets need to be kept free of weeds from the very beginning, garden beets have very shallow roots and care is needed to avoid damage by deep cultivation that is necessary when weeds take over. This is easily achieved by mulching as soon as the seed is sown.
Use a light mulch over the seeds with heavier mulch between the rows, this will allow the new seedling to easily penetrate the mulch and is probably the most effective organic method of controlling weeds in the rows. Hand weeding will still be necessary but as long as it is done regularly it is usually a quick painless process.
Consistent moisture levels are the key to good root development when growing beets, too much water as seedlings can result in damping off and not enough will retard growth.
Photo Right - Using a thick mulch on the garden will regulate soil moisture, reduce plant stress and improve overall plant growth consistency.
Garden beets don't require a lot of fertilizer and will in fact tolerate low levels, unless you wish to grow them just for the greens, they especially do not need high concentrations of nitrogen rich manures or fertilizer. An excess of this nutrient will cause excess growth of greens and pitiful beets beneath the soil.
Digging in well aged manure or good compost before planting will usually see to a good and speedy harvest of both greens and roots.
Most beets grow rapidly and are not susceptible to many problems and a good crop rotation policy from year to year will help control many pests and diseases.
Beets, Swiss chard and spinach are of the same family and you should avoid following these crops in rotation.
Both the beet root and the greens should be harvested before heavy frosts or freezes.
Photo Left - Garden beets mature in 50-80 days, depending on conditions and variety although they can be harvested at any time your desire for fresh, tender garden beets overcome you.
Harvesting roots 1 1/2 inches in diameter can be used for cooking, pickling or canning as whole beets.
If you like larger beets you will have to wait a little longer. Beets that have good growing conditions mature quickly and can get to around 3 inches (7-8 cm) in a short time and still be reasonably tender. However if they have not had good growing conditions and take too long to achieve good size these larger roots can become tough and woody.
When harvesting beets, use a garden fork to loosen soil and pull the beets by the tops. Separate the green tops from the roots with a knife leaving 1 inch (2.5 cm) of stem on the beet.
Photo Right - Beet greens have a delicious and distinctive flavor, and hold more nutrition than the roots, young leaves may be cooked or added raw to salads. They can be harvested at any time, young leaves are always more tender than older ones but have slightly less vitamin levels. As with all vegetables they are at their peak immediately after harvest.
Beet greens and roots must be prepared and stored separately, if the tops are left on the roots the greens will quickly draw moisture from the root greatly reducing flavor and the beets will become dry and shriveled.
Beet roots with the tops removed may be stored in a polyethylene bag in a refrigerator or cool place for several weeks. For longer storage topped beets will last well for 4-6 months when kept at 32 F (0 C) with a relative humidity of 98-100 percent to prevent shriveling.
Beets can also be canned, pickled or frozen.
Beet greens have a very limited shelf life once picked. Wrap greens in plastic and stored in the refrigerator, they will retain flavor and nutrients for several days.