Beets come in a variety of colors, flavors and shapes:
- Cylindra and Formonova need no more space but provide more beet per plant because of their long tapered roots.
- Heirloom varieties include Detroit Dark Red and Lutz Winterkeeper, a storage beet.
- Mangel beets are used for livestock feed (good for chickens).
- Sugar beets are very sweet and used to make table sugar.
- Golden and Boldor are yellow beets.
- Chioggia is a striped variety.
Growing Season for Beets
Beets are considered a cool season crop. They can survive frost and near-freezing temperatures. In the coldest areas they may need a mulch. Depending on your zone and microclimate, this means you might be able to plant beets in the spring as well as the late summer to fall. In zones 9 and above, you may be able to plant beets in the winter as well.
Where to Plant Beets
Like most vegetables, beets prefer full sun. However, they do have a certain degree of shade tolerance, especially if you are more interested in greens than roots. They should still have about six hours of sun per day for best development. Soil depth depends on the variety. For most garden beets, 12 inches is sufficient. They can be grown in the garden, in raised beds and in containers.
Best Soil for Beets
As root crops, beets like a well-worked, friable soil. Beets prefer a soil pH above 5.5 to 6 to prevent stunted growth. Till in aged manure or compost before planting to provide humus and nutrients. A high phosphorus level promotes better germination. Go easy on nitrogen, as it will result in lots of leaf and minimal root development. Wood ashes (just a sprinkle) can provide potassium and increase vigor.
How to Plant Beets
Seeding depth should be ½ inch deep, about 2 inches apart. Seedlings will need to be thinned, especially if you choose heirloom varieties. Once they germinate, you should thin the beets to 4 inches apart. The distance between rows will be dependent on whether you are hand weeding or tilling for weed control; 12 inch rows are common. Beets can also be planted intensively on 4-inch centers.
When to Plant
Although beets prefer cool weather, they will germinate best if soil temps have reached a consistent 50°F (10°C). Plastic mulch or an old window frame placed on the seeding area can help increase soil temperature. If planting in summer for a fall crop, shade the row or cover with moist burlap to improve germination and prevent soil crusting.
Because the beet seed capsule contains more than one seed, they must be thinned. Thin when the plants are about 2 inches high. Pulling up individual plants can damage the roots of remaining beets; it’s better to cut the seedlings with sharp pointed scissors. The thinnings can be washed and used in salads or soup.
Beets can be transplanted, but the roots are shallow and the plant is easily damaged. It is generally better to plant with more space between the plants than to count on transplanting to reach proper spacing. If you transplant, make sure to take enough soil around the roots to prevent damage and perform the task before the bulb begins to develop.
How to Fertilize Beets
Beets planted in properly prepared soil don’t usually need to be fertilized. This is particularly true if you use compost to mulch the plants. However, foliar feeding with a water-soluble 10-10-10 fertilizer spray may be used. Make sure your fertilizer is not high in nitrogen. Avoid manure, especially if fresh.
How to Water Beets
Moisture is critical for proper germination. In dry climates, beet seeds will germinate better if soaked for 24 hours just prior to planting. Water well – an inch of water per week is the absolute minimum, and two inches is better in most climates. It’s important to use a sprinkler or soaker hose to prevent soil from being washed away. A mulch will help retain moisture.
When to Harvest
Most beet varieties are ready for harvesting at 50 to 70 days after planting. Some may be allowed to grow longer, but they are likely to be tough and woody. Generally, a beet about two inches in diameter is ideal from the standpoint of tenderness and flavor. Beet greens can be harvested any time they have grown at least 6 inches long.
Plant Companions for Beets
Companion planting recommendations for beets vary depending on the source. Most sources recommend planting beets near cole crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. Beets are also reputed to be a good companion to onions, chard and pole beans. However, they don’t seem to grow as well next to pole beans, and dislike being planted next to field mustard (charlock).
A fungal disease called Cercospora leaf spot can occur in warm humid weather, especially in poorly nourished plants. Beets can also be attacked by other fungal, bacterial and viral diseases. Maintain high soil fertility with compost, rotate plants and make sure they are thinned properly. In the home garden, diseases are rarely a major problem.
Rabbits love beets, especially the greens, and voles often attack the roots. Good fencing helps keep out the rabbits and cats will hunt the voles. Flea beetles and leaf miners are typical garden pests. Flea beetles rarely do enough damage to be a problem and healthy plants quickly outgrow any damage. Leaf miners feed inside the leaf – best to cut and burn or compost infected leaves.
Growing Beets in Containers
Beet seedlings are easily grown in containers; fertile soil is critical. Make sure the pot is at least 12 inches deep and maintain proper spacing of about 4 inches between mature plants. Plants in containers should be carefully monitored to make sure the soil is moist, as beets will become stunted and bitter if moisture is lacking.
Fresh beets store well in the refrigerator for about 5 to 7 days. Clip off tops to help them keep fresh. Store greens separately from beet roots. Beets can also be stored in a cool, dry root cellar. They can also be left in the garden, although in the warmer months they will continue to grow and may become tough. They can be frozen, canned, fermented or pickled.
Beets are biennial. Although hybrids will produce seed, the resulting plants are likely to be very different compared to the parents. Plant heirloom (open-pollinated) varieties to ensure your seeds produce true to type. Beets are wind pollinated, so you should plant a few of one variety close together to ensure pure seed. Don’t let any other beet plants produce flowers. Beets will also cross-pollinate with chard.
In mild climates, let your seed beets overwinter in the ground or pot. In very cold climates, store several beets in a cellar and replant in spring. Stake the flower stalks, which can reach 4 feet. When seeds have turned a light tan color and are dry, remove seeds from the stalks by crushing with your fingers. Store seeds in a cool dry place.