Beets are such earthy, humble vegetables. They hide their delicious roots under the soil and don’t demand much care in the garden. Just give them some cool weather and regular water, and they will bring plenty of flavor and nutrients to your table.
Prehistoric peoples in the Mediterranean region were the first to use beet leaves, probably for medicinal purposes. The plants did not immediately catch on with the early Romans who tried them; Pliny scorned their roots as “those scarlet nether parts.” But by the second and third centuries, Roman chefs were adding beet roots to their recipes and praising them as better than cabbage—which may say something about their taste, if you’re not a cabbage fan.
Only a few types of garden beets were grown throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the plants were commonly referred to as “blood turnips” because of their dark, turniplike roots. English gardeners were limited to just two varieties, the Red and the Long Red.
How to Grow Beet Root
- Beets are short-season crops, but they crave full sun and good drainage. Give them a head start by clearing your ground of rocks and sticks and working their soil to 8 to 10 inches deep. Add some organic material to help loosen their bed.
- Since beets need cool temperatures, start them in early spring or before the first frost in fall. Gardeners in mild climates can grow them year-round.
- Each beet seed is actually a cluster of embryos that can produce from three to five plants. That’s why you’ll find lots of seedlings coming up close together, no matter how carefully you space the seeds.
- Before you plant, soak the seeds overnight. Then scatter them over the soil directly into your garden. It is not a good idea to start them indoors, as beets dislike transplanting.
- Beet seeds germinate between temperatures of 50° and 85°F. Don’t forget to plant extras of the golden and pale heirloom varieties, as they have low germination rates.
- Sow your seeds ½ inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart in single or wide rows.
- Allow 18 to 24 inches between the rows. You can toss out some fast-sprouting radishes, too, to help mark the location of the beets until they sprout.
- When the seedlings appear, thin them to every 3 inches for small varieties and every 6 inches for larger ones. If you’re accidentally pulling up neighboring seedlings, try snipping the sprouts with scissors. Water regularly as the beets grow so the roots won’t turn woody.
- You can start harvesting when the roots are about the size of golf balls. Modern varieties may become bigger if you leave them in the ground.
- If you’re saving seeds, remember that beets are biennials. Gardeners who live in mild areas can mulch their roots and let them overwinter. The following spring, seed stalks will form after the mulch is removed.
- But if you live where the winter temperature drops to freezing, you’ll need a different strategy to save beet seeds. Instead of leaving the roots outdoors, dig them up and stash them in damp sand in a cellar where the temperature stays slightly above freezing. The following spring, replant them outside. After seed stalks appear, let the seeds ripen before you collect them. Saving beet seeds is difficult, so most gardeners will opt to buy or trade for new seeds each year.
- For true-to-type seeds and to avoid cross-pollination, don’t grow garden beets alongside sugar beets or chards.
- Beets can tolerate light frost, which often makes them taste better and store longer. If you have lots of room, you can follow the advice from available seed catalog and store the roots for winter use “in barrels with five or six inches of sand on top in a cool cellar just above the freezing point.”
- For a continuous supply of fresh beets, sow more seeds every two to three weeks in the spring, or up to a month before the first expected fall frost. Growing early and late varieties will also help stretch your supply.
Beet Root Verities to Plant
Choices were limited in the United States as well, where seed sellers offered only three or four kinds of beets as late as 1828. Today we can sample from a broad array of these cold-hardy root crops. Look for them in a range of colors, including gold, garnet, dark purplish-red, orange, maroon, vermilion, red, white, and striped.
DETROIT DARK RED
M. Ferry & Company introduced this all-purpose variety in 1892, and it has since become one of the most popular beets for backyard gardeners and commercial growers. The 2- to 4-inch globes have a sweet, tender flesh with a uniform color and texture that’s nice for canning. A descendant of the nineteenth-century Early Blood Turnip, this one matures about 60 days after sowing.
This old Victorian-era beet was originally grown for its attractive leaves. Some gardeners still turn up their noses at the roots and never bring them to the table, preferring to grow Bull’s Blood strictly as an ornamental. The near-black leaves can be eye-catching, especially when mingled with silvery foliage or flowers in cut arrangements or in beds and borders.
Give the plants 35 days from sowing if you plan to eat the foliage. Otherwise, the roots need 58 days to mature. Pull them while they are small, for the best flavor.
Italy claims this fast-growing variety, which first popped up in seed lists in the mid-1800s. When sliced, the roots show alternating rings of white and rosy pink. Even the green stems have pale pink stripes. Nicknamed the “candy cane beet,” Chiogga needs 55 days from sowing.
Developed from a German beet, this variety came into the United States around 1880. The flattened, heart-shaped roots are ready in about 50 days.
Inside, the deep red flesh is sweet and tender. Despite its name, this beet has no clear, direct link to Egypt.
This gourmet favorite has an attractive golden yellow flesh and light green leaves with gold veins. It is ready in 55 days from sowing; harvest the buttery sweet roots at 2 inches in diameter for the best taste. These beets will not bleed when sliced or cooked. Unfortunately, this variety has a reputation for poor germination, so soak the seeds in lukewarm water before planting them, and sow extra to avoid disappointment.
ALBINA VERDUNA, also known as Snow White
White beet sugar was once made from this old Dutch variety. The white roots have a sweet flavor and no dark juice to bleed into salads or stain your fingers. Allow 55 days from planting.
LUTZ GREEN LEAF (WINTER KEEPER)
Make extra room in your garden for these big beets, which can grow to 6 inches in diameter. The smooth-skinned, reddish-purple roots are slow to mature, needing 60 to 80 days. They are good keepers, though, perhaps because this variety was developed in the era before refrigeration. Lutz is one of the sweetest heirloom varieties, said to become sweeter in storage. The pink-veined leaves, which resemble chard, stay tender into the fall.
How to eat Beet Root
Beets are nutritious, from their buttery, green tops to their tasty roots. Just a half-cup of cooked beets provides vitamin A, folate, phosphorus, potassium, and more.
Think beyond salads when you bring beets to the kitchen. American colonists once roasted the tough-skinned roots in coals, and today we can bake, steam, sauté, mash, shred, and pickle them. Young beet leaves are also good whether stir-fried, steamed, or tossed with vinegar for salads.