You either love beets or you hate them. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. If those purple pickled things don’t appeal to you, the good news is that’s only one way to eat beets. And for that we are grateful, indeed.
There are a number of beet varieties to choose from, and they come in a rainbow of colors. The varieties are generally divided into three categories (this list is not comprehensive):
Dwarf: Acton, Dwergina, Pronto.
Globe: Albina Vereduna, Big Red, Burpee’s Golden, Barabietola di Chiogga, Detroit Dark Red, Early Wonder, Red Ace, Ruby Queen.
Long/Cylindrical: Carillon, Cylindra, Formanova, Long Season, Lutz Green Leaf/Winter Keeper.
Visit your local nursery to see what your choices are. If you’re having trouble deciding what you’d like to try first, why not plant a variety? This packet contains seeds to grow Barabietola di Chiogga, Detroit Dark Red, and Golden beets. If nothing else, your harvest will be colorful!
Best Climate to Grow: Beets thrive in coastal areas and cooler climates like those found in Northern Europe (it’s no accident that the main ingredient of Russian borscht is beets). The roots tend to become hard and woody in temperatures 80 degrees F or above.
Light Requirements: Lots of sun.
Soil Requirements: Loose, rich, pH neutral to slightly alkaline soil is ideal; beets do not fare well in heavy or acidic soil. Amend your soil as needed before planting.
Feeding and Water Requirements: Before planting, incorporate well-rotted manure or an organic 5-10-10 fertilizer into the soil. Keep the soil moist at all times to avoid the roots a) becoming tough and woody, or b) splitting open. Use compost mulch for dual weed-control and feeding purposes. Fighting weeds for nutrients will make beets tough, so good mulching is essential.
When to Plant: Depending on your climate (keeping in mind that beets do well in cooler climates), start in early spring, sowing directly in the ground every other week to avoid a glut of beets all at once. You can sow clear through late Summer. If you live in a warmer climate, sow in mid Summer for a late Fall harvest or late Summer for an early Winter harvest.
Beets are one of the few root crops that can handle being started indoors and then hardened off and transplanted outdoors as seedlings.
Planting Depth and Spacing: Varieties may vary, so check your seed packet. Generally speaking, plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart; if planting in rows, make sure the rows are at least 8 inches apart. Beet seeds are comparatively large, so they are easier to plant than some others. You may need to thin them to 6 inches apart if they start to get crowded. Either eat the thinnings or put them in the compost pile.
If transplanting seedlings, plant them 4-6 inches apart, depending on the variety. Long varieties can be planted closer together than globe varieties, for obvious reasons.
Container Requirements: The dwarf varieties are ideal for container growing, followed by the globe varieties (as opposed to the long varieties). A large container at least 10 inches deep is required. Take extra care to keep the soil moist and well-fed with compost at all times.
Harvesting and Storage: When the beets are at least half-grown, grasp the greens directly above the bulbs and pull out of the ground. Both the roots and greens are edible. The greens are good fresh, sautéed, or steamed. The roots will store in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Do not freeze. They can also be pickled and canned, or stored in a cool, dry area in boxes filled with sand or a peat substitute. Make sure the beets do not touch each other if you store them this way.
Harvesting Seeds: If you’re planning to harvest seeds, you will need to leave a good number of your beet plants alone, as they are a biennial if left alone, and will not flower the first year they are planted; in fact, planting a separate bed strictly for seed is a good idea.
During the second year they should start to blossom in June and the seed balls should then be ready for harvest in August. Once the seed balls appear, cut the tops of the stalks off and allow them to dry completely in a protected area before removing the seeds. Pull up the remainder of the plants and put them in the compost pile. Don’t grow another root crop in that area for at least two years to prevent root rot. Store the seeds in an airtight container in a cool, dry area.
Pests to Monitor: Aphids, Armyworms, Beet Petiole Borers, various Beetles, Cutworms, False Chinch Bugs, Grasshoppers, various Leafhoppers and Leafminers.