GROWING YOUR OWN BEETS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Each year the National Garden Bureau chooses plants of the year to feature. For vegetable, they have proclaimed 2018 as Year of the Beet. This isn’t one of the more popular vegetables, perhaps as most just know it from cans in the back of the pantry, or the “earthy” taste of traditional varieties. Yet beets are easy to grow, particularly in cool climates.
Beets are rich in fiber, vitamins, iron, and antioxidants. The roots
come in various colors and shapes, and can be harvested young and small
or left to mature larger. Tops—beet greens—can be cooked too, or used
in salads. Several new varieties, such as ‘Merlin’ and ‘Fresh Pak,’ are
grown just for this purpose. Beet roots can be sliced, roasted, and
used in salads as well. You may find beet juice sold as an energy
drink, or slices dried as beet chips.
Beets are more popular in many countries; in some, it is a menu
staple. In Australia, you may see them sliced on hamburgers. The
beet-based soup “borscht” is a staple of Eastern European, Jewish, and
Mennonite cuisine. Beets were even used medicinally in ancient Rome as a
laxative or to cure fevers, and to promote amorous feelings. Beets
were used even earlier in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even the Netherlands,
going back to at least 2000 BCE.
Ancient beets had thin, fibrous roots and so were consumed for their
stems and greens, as we do chard today (a beet relative). One of the
earliest records of eating the roots was from Germany or Italy in 1542.
At that time, beet roots more resembled a parsnip than the generally
rounded shape of modern beets, which began appearing during the late
1500’s. These are believed to have come from an ancient North African
vegetable. Medieval cooks used beets in pies. Elizabethans used them in
tarts and stews. Thomas Jefferson planted them at Monticello.
Another use of beets began in 1747 in Berlin, where the chemist
Andreas Marggraf discovered how to extract sugar from beets. His
student perfected this process, the King of Prussia supported it, the
first sugar beet factory was built in western Poland, and today about 20
percent of the world’s sugar comes from beets. Beet sugar production
requires about four times less water than cane sugar production, so it
is popular in countries with limited water supplies. Sugar beets are
different from our table varieties, being white and cone-shaped.
As with most vegetables, there are a range of beet cultivars
(cultivated varieties) to choose from. The most common shape is
rounded, like ‘Ruby Queen’, but you also may find cylindrical beets like
‘Cylindra’ (a great one for canning), or even flattened ones like the
heirloom ‘Flat of Egypt’.
Beets are commonly dark red to purple, such as the classic ‘Detroit
Dark Red’. But there are newer cultivars in other colors, such as the
golden ‘Touchstone Gold’ or yellow-fleshed ‘Boldor’. ‘Avalanche’ is, as
you might guess from the name, a white beet. Then there are the
Chioggia or candy-stripe beets, with spirals of pink and white.
While beet lovers refer to the taste of older varieties as “earthy”,
those that dislike beets refer to it as a dirt taste. This comes from
the organic compound “geosmin” which is produced by soil bacteria and is
the same earthy smell after a summer rain. While it is believed by
many that beets get this flavor from these soil bacteria, recent
research and breeding shows that this can be produced within the beet
root itself. If you don’t like the taste of traditional beets, try one
of the newer cultivars with a much sweeter flavor such as ‘Merlin’,
‘Boro’, or ‘Red Ace’.
Although beets are “biennial”— flowering in their second year of
growth—they are not grown for their flowers, but as an annual
vegetable. You’ll want to make sure the soil, prior to sowing, is
amended with compost and deeply dug, or loosened with a spading fork.
Beet roots often grow a foot deep, and can reach three feet deep in
Beets will tolerate some shade, but full sun is best. Avoid planting
them in the same bed or area where other members of their family, such
as spinach or Swiss chard, grew the last year or two. This avoids potential problems such as nutrient disorders.
Beets don’t need, or want, much fertility. In particular, avoid high
nitrogen. Use an organic fertilizer, or one low in nitrogen, and
moderate in phosphorus (if a soil test indicates you need this at all),
and moderate in potassium (potash). Beets prefer an almost neutral to
slightly alkaline soil (around pH 7 or above). Brown, scab patches on
roots indicates a too acidic soil.
Depending on climate, and the root size you wish to harvest, beets
need from 50 to 60 days from sowing to full maturity. Sow seeds
directly in the garden, about one-quarter to one-half inch deep.
Although beets grow best in cooler climates, don’t sow too early in
spring as best germination occurs with soil temperatures of 75 to 85
degrees (F). Beet “seeds” actually are a cluster of two to six seeds,
so the clusters of seedlings that germinate will need thinning out.
For greens, space (or thin seedlings) to about two inches apart if
harvesting for greens; three inches apart if harvesting in summer; four
inches apart if harvesting later for storage. To thin seedlings, use
fine scissors or snips to cut plants, rather than pulling and disturbing
remaining seedlings. The roots left behind will decompose, enriching
Beets grow best with cool soil temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees (F).
A light straw mulch or layer of compost helps moderate soil
temperatures. Or, interplant or “companion crop” with other vegetables
that will shade the soil, and provide other benefits such as deterring
weeds. Bush beans (not pole or runner beans), radishes, lettuce, and
members of the cabbage family are good to grow in between rows of
Once beets have formed a rosette of leaves, an extended cold period,
as we sometimes get in northern climates—two or more weeks getting below
50 degrees (F)—can cause them to bolt (form flower stalks), which puts
a halt to their root production. If the weather turns cool with cold
nights, cover plants with a floating row cover to help keep temperatures
Harvest beets when they are about one and a half to two and a half inches wide for best
taste. When they get larger they lose some flavor and develop a coarser
texture. Unless the soil is quite porous, gently loosen it first with a
spading fork. To avoid “bleeding” (of red and purple beets, not white
or gold ones), don’t cut tops off but rather twist them off. Hold the
root in one hand, then twist off the tops with the other hand, leaving
an inch or two of stems on the roots. Wash soil off before storage. If
you don’t plan to use the greens, leave them to decompose and release
their nutrients back into the soil.
You can store the tops, wrapped in a moist paper towel, in a plastic
bag in the refrigerator for two to five days. Roots can be stored two
to three weeks in plastic bags in the refrigerator. For longer
storage—two to three months for roots— store them in a root cellar or
similar cold place (unheated garage for instance) at 32 to 40 degrees
(F), and about 95 percent humidity. A tub with a cover helps to
maintain humidity, layering roots with damp sand, peat moss, sawdust, compost or similar material.
Beets can be sown in spring for an early to mid-summer crop, sowing
about three to four weeks before the last usual frost date. Or, sow
them in late summer about a month before the first usual frost date for a
fall crop. Although beets prefer cool temperatures, and will tolerate
some light frost, make sure to cover with heavy row cover fabric if hard
frost is predicted.
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