Dorothy is a master gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape and nature photographer.
The History of Beets
If the only time you ever ate beets was in your school's cafeteria, you haven't really tasted beets. The methods of preparing beets have changed drastically over the few decades, and you owe it to yourself to give them another try. As a matter of fact, why don't you just grow your own so you can prepare them any way you want any time you want?
According to an Assyrian text, beets were grown for centuries before the common era in one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, said to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Amytis of Media. Historians, however, differ on their ideas of where the gardens were and if they ever existed at all. One thing for certain is that beets have been around for centuries.
Adjusting the Soil
Not only do beets have a wonderful flavor, they can also be used as a thermometer (of sorts) of your soil's pH level, preferring slightly acid soil between pH 6–7. If you have some sick-looking beets, you will want to make some soil adjustments. They usually respond well to generous applications of a 5-10-10 fertilizer (about 3 pounds per 100-foot row before and after planting).
Beets, in general, do poorly when the weather is hot. So if you live in the southern part of the United States, plan to plant in the fall, winter, and spring. People who live in the northern part of the country are at an advantage when it comes to planting beets because of their cooler temperatures. Planting them every few weeks will usually assure them of a continuous supply of these fresh vegetables.
Popular Beet Varieties
Let's take a look at some of the more popular varieties of beets.
Chioggia beets (pronounced kee-OH-gee-uh) have been popular since the 19th century. They are an exceptionally sweet-tasting Italian heirloom with distinctive striped red and white flesh. This variety doesn't bleed as much as many others, so you don't have to worry about having red fingers when you are working with it. Experts caution those who are new to growing this variety of beets to be very careful not to break the skin when you are washing your harvested vegetables. Doing so will allow nutrients to escape.
Detroit Dark Red Beets
Detroit dark red beets are almost perfectly round and about 3 inches in diameter. They have gorgeous deep red flesh that is unbelievably sweet. These beets can be grown for both their greens and roots. A major upside to them is that they will grow very well in a wide range of soil and temperature conditions. They will be ready to harvest in just under two months.
Cylindra Formanova Beets
This cylinder-shaped beet grows up to 8 inches long and is perfect when you feel the need for uniform, sweet slices.
Here's a breakdown of how to properly plant your beets.
How to Sow the Seeds
- Sow beet seeds in well-worked, well-draining soil in an area that receives full sun (after danger of frost in spring). If you live in a frost-free area, sow the seeds in the fall.
- Beets are very sensitive to acidic soils, preferring a pH of 6.0–7.0. If you have acidic soil, you can add some garden lime, following the manufacturer's directions.
- Sow the seeds very thinly in rows about a foot apart. Cover them with about a half-inch of fine soil. Tamp them down very lightly and keep evenly moist.
- You can expect the seedlings to emerge in two to three weeks. Thin them to stand about 3 inches apart when the seedlings are 1-2 inches tall. Beet seeds are actually clusters of seeds, which require more thinning than other crops.
Beets can be grown in the garden, in raised beds, or in containers. Soil depth depends on the variety you choose, but for most garden beets, 12 inches is sufficient.
- Do your very best to keep weeds under control during the growing season, as they compete with the plants for space, nutrients, and water. Control the weeds by either using mulch to prevent the weed's seeds from germinating or cultivating often.
- Keep your beet plants well watered during dry periods to promote uninterrupted growth. Plants will need about an inch of rain each week during the growing season. I recommend you use a rain gauge that will aid in helping you to determine whether you need to add water. It’s always better to water with a drip or trickle system that will deliver water at low pressure at the soil level. If you prefer to water with overhead sprinklers, do so early in the day so the foliage has time to dry before evening. Doing so will help to minimize disease problems. The soil should be kept moist, but never saturated.
When the greens are around 4–6 inches long, they are ready to be harvested; the roots should be harvested when they are less than 2 inches in diameter. For baby beets, harvest the roots when they are about an inch in diameter; up to 3 inches for mature beets.
Most varieties of beets will reach maturity in 50–70 days, although they can be harvested at any time you want. If you like larger bulbs, although they tend to be tougher, wait to harvest them. You shouldn't let greens grow any longer than 6 inches before harvesting them.
If you harvest your beets in the fall, store them at 95% humidity at about 35°F. Beets harvested in the fall have stronger colors than spring-planted beets and are sweeter, having higher sugar levels.
- Beetroots can be either pickled, grilled, baked or broiled.
- You can cook the greens the same way you would cook spinach.
- To prevent red beets from an excessive amount of “bleeding” while they are cooking, wait until after you've finished cooking them to peel, then remove the taproots and slice. Trim off the tops about an inch above the roots, washing carefully with a vegetable brush. Boil them until tender, then plunge into cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, slide the skins off with your fingers, removing the small taproots. Then slice them or serve them whole.
Sucrose from sugarbeets is the principal use for sugarbeets in this country. Sugarbeets contain around 13–22% sucrose, widely used as a pure high-energy food or food additive. High-fiber dietary food additives are manufactured from the pulp of sugarbeets. These dietary supplements have been introduced recently by major food processors in the United States in many different products.
Although recognized as a plant with valuable sweetening properties in the early 1700s, sugarbeet growing for sucrose production didn't become successful in the United States until around 1870. Previous attempts, although not total failures, were only mildly successful.
Luckily, if you are interested in growing sugarbeets, they are well adapted to a wide range of soil types, although you should plan on adjusting your pH to 6.0–8.0 for the best crop. In the United States, sugarbeets can grow in almost any type of soil available, although having a rock-free soil is advantageous. Rocks cause problems with regard to planting, thinning, harvesting, and processing equipment (if used).
Sugarbeets have also adapted to a very wide range of climatic conditions, but they are not super drought tolerant and need adequate rainfall to sustain a good crop. Sugar beet seeds should be planted between a half-inch to an inch deep, then covered lightly with soil.
Seedlings begin emerging from the soil approximately two weeks (or slightly less) after being planted. Sugarbeets are dicotyledons, meaning they will emerge with two leaves. They are highly susceptible to wind damage, insects and seedling disease until they reach the 4–6 leaf stage, at which time they become quite hardy and able to withstand the extremes of weather.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Mike and Dorothy McKenney