Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I’ve always been one of those people who hates vegetables. I eat very few of them because I don’t like the flavor. That is slowly changing because thanks to the internet, I am discovering baking recipes that use veggies that are on my Do Not Eat list. Recently I tried baking beet bread. It came out so well that I am going to grow beets in my garden.
What are Beets?
Beets (Beta vulgaris) are a biennial vegetable that is grown as an annual. It is a relative of Swiss chard. Unlike chard, beets are grown for their tap root. A tap root is a thick root from which other smaller roots grow. The purpose of the thick tap root is to store carbohydrates which the plant can use for food. Most beet tap roots are red but new cultivars are yellow or white or even striped.
If left unharvested, beets will grow a second year as far north as zone 6 (with protection). The second year, it sends up a tall flower stalk. When the flowers go to seed, the seed falls to the soil and new plants grow.
Both the foliage and the tap root of beets are edible. In fact, the foliage has more nutrients than the tap root. Depending on the cultivar, the tap root will grow to 1 to 3 inches in diameter while the foliage will grow 8 to 12 inches high with a spread of about 12 inches. Most tap roots are harvested before they are full grown because larger ones get woody and tough making them difficult to eat. The foliage is usually eaten as a micro-green from the thinnings or in salads when it is less than 6 inches tall.
How to Grow Beets
Beets are a cool season plant best grown in the spring or the fall. Like most plants with large tap roots, they do not transplant well. Direct sow the seeds in your garden where you want them to grow instead of starting them indoors and then transplanting the resulting seedlings outdoors.
The “seeds” that you buy are actually capsules that have 2 or more seeds inside. You can try to separate out the seeds from the capsules but it is difficult and tedious so most gardeners plant the capsules and thin out the seedlings. Beet seeds have very hard coats so soak them overnight before planting them.
In the spring, wait until the soil has thawed and warmed to 50⁰F. Plant the seed capsules ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart in rows that are 12 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist. Germination should occur in 5 to 10 days. After a week, thin the seedlings to 3 to 4 inches apart. When you thin the seedlings, cut the stems at the surface of the soil. Do not pull them out of the ground. That will disturb the neighboring plants. Don’t throw those seedlings you thinned out. You can eat them as microgreens.
In the fall, sow your seeds 10 to 12 weeks before your first frost date. Just like in the spring, plant the capsules ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart in rows that are 12 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist. Germination should occur in 5 to 10 days. After a week, thin the seedlings to 3 to 4 inches apart. Cut the seedlings rather than pull them out of the soil to avoid disturbing neighboring plants. The thinnings can be eaten as micro-greens.
In both cases, your beets will be ready to harvest in 50 to 70 days after the seeds germinate. In the fall, they can tolerate a light frost.
How to Harvest Beets
You can start harvesting the foliage, or greens, when the leaves are 2 inches tall. You can continue harvesting the greens until they reach 6 inches tall. After that the foliage becomes tougher and less desirable. To harvest, cut the stems at ground level just like you did when you thinned your plants. Don’t pull on the foliage to “pick it” as you would leaves from a plant that has branches. The leaves are directly connected to the tap root so if you pull on them, you are pulling on the tap root which you don’t want to do until you are ready to harvest it.
The tap roots are ready for harvest when they are 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. Any larger than that and they will be woody and tough to eat. You can harvest by either pulling on the foliage to lift the tap root out of the soil or by digging it up.
How to Store Beets
Beets can be stored in your refrigerator for 5 to 7 days. Carefully wash the tap root and cut off the foliage leaving about an inch of the stems. Leaving part of the stems ensures longer freshness and prevents the beets from bleeding red when they are cooked.
Beets can also be stored in a root cellar or unheated basement for 3 to 4 months. In that case, brush off the soil and cut off the foliage leaving about an inch of the stems. Do not wash them until you are ready to use them. The added moisture from washing will cause the roots to rot.
How to Save Seeds From Beets
If you live in an area that is zone 5 or warmer, you can leave your beets in the ground all winter. Just remove any dead foliage after a frost to prevent pests from overwintering in the plant debris. In zone 6, cover your beets with a row cover. North of zone 6, gently pull the beets out of the ground and store them somewhere cool and dark like a root cellar or unheated basement. In the spring when the soil has warmed enough to work, you can replant your beets.
No matter how you overwinter your beets, in the spring they will grow new leaves and then flowers. The flower spikes can be up to 4 feet tall so you may have to stake them. The flowers are not pollinated by insects. They depend on the wind to blow pollen from flower to flower so plant your beets close together to make sure enough pollen is blown to fertilized as many flowers as possible.
After the flowers have died, the seed capsules will begin to develop. When they are tan in color, cut off the spikes and place them in a paper bag to finish drying. Make sure that you cut slits in the bags to facilitate air circulation. They should be fully dried in about 2 weeks. You can store the seed capsules in a cool dry place for up to 4 years.
© 2018 Caren White
Dianna Mendez on October 08, 2018:
I do enjoy beets once in awhile but I should eat them more often. It would be so nice to have a root cellar to store food through the winter months.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 05, 2018:
I love beets, both the tubes and the greens. My husband likes to pickle them so we can enjoy it longer.
Debbie Anastassiou from Perth Western Australia on September 04, 2018:
Great article and it is interesting how many varieties of beets exist! Now I have to make the time to grow some.