Table beet (also known as garden beet, blood turnip or red beet) is a popular garden vegetable throughout the United States. Beet tops are an excellent source of vitamin A and the roots are a good source of vitamin C. The tops are cooked or served fresh as greens and the roots may be pickled for salads or cooked whole, then sliced or diced. Beet juice is a basic ingredient of Russian borscht. The garden beet is closely related to Swiss chard, sugar beet and mangel.
When To Plant
Beets are fairly frost hardy and can be planted in the garden 30 days before the frost-free date for your area. Although beets grow well during warm weather, the seedlings are established more easily under cool, moist conditions. Start successive plantings at 3 to 4 week intervals until midsummer for a continuous supply of fresh, tender, young beets. Irrigation assures germination and establishment of the later plantings.
Spacing & Depth
The beet "seed" is actually a cluster of seeds in a dried fruit. Several seedlings may grow from each fruit. Plant seeds about 1/2 inch deep and one inch apart.
Allow 12 to 18 inches between rows. Poor stands are often the result of planting too deeply or the soil's crusting after a heavy rain. The seedlings may emerge over a relatively long period of time, making a stand of different sizes and ages of seedlings. Some gardeners find that placing a board over the row after planting preserves the soil moisture and eliminates crusting from hard rains. The board must be removed as soon as the first seedling starts to emerge.
Hand thinning is almost always necessary. The seedlings should be thinned to 1 to 3 inches apart. If thinning is delayed until the plants are 3 inches tall, those removed may be cooked greens, similar to spinach. Some cooks leave the small root (usually about the size of a marble) attached to the greens.
Though it is seldom done, beets actually may be transplanted. Some care must be taken to get the roots oriented vertically so that the beets can develop properly.
Frequent shallow cultivation is important because beets compete poorly with weeds, especially when small. Because beets have extremely shallow roots, hand weeding and early, frequent and shallow cultivation are the most effective methods of controlling weeds in the rows. Deep cultivation after the weeds are large damages the beet roots. Like most root crops, beets need a fertile soil (especially high in potassium) for vigorous growth. Keep your beet plants uniformly supplied with moisture for best performance.
Beets can be harvested whenever they grow to the desired size. About 60 days are required for beets to reach 1 1/2 inches in diameter, the size often used for cooking, pickling or canning as whole beets. Beets enlarge rapidly to 3 inches with adequate moisture and space. With most varieties, beets larger than 3 inches may become tough and fibrous. Beets may be stored in a polyethylene bag in a refrigerator for several weeks. Beets also may be stored in outdoor pits if the beets are dug before the ground freezes in the fall. Cut off the tops of the beets one inch above the roots. Beets store best at 32°F and 95 percent humidity. Do not allow them to freeze.
Selection & Storage
Beets can be harvested at any stage of development, from the thinning to the fully mature stage at about 2 inches in diameter. The "thinnings" are beets that have been pulled from the ground prematurely to make room for others when rows are overcrowded. Thinnings can be eaten raw, tops included, in salads or roasted. Beets are high in natural sugar and roasting brings out the natural sweetness.
Beets vary in color and shape based on variety. The most common is the deep maroon globe-shaped beet. There is an Italian variety which has pink and white rings upon slicing. The golden globe is globe-shaped and orange in color then it turns golden yellow when cooked. Another variety is white and still another is pink.
When harvesting beets, separate the green tops from the roots leaving an inch of stem on the beet. Beets larger than 3 inches in diameter are often fibrous and woody. Beet greens are packed with nutritional value but must be prepared separately. Upon storage the greens will quickly draw the moisture from the root greatly reducing flavor and the beets will become shriveled. Leave one inch stem and the taproot intact to retain moisture and nutrients. After separating, beets store well for about a week in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator. Use beets while they are still firm and fresh.