Beets are a nutrition powerhouse and an efficient way to grow healthy produce. With the tips in this article, you’ll be growing your own in no time. Afraid to try beets? The delicious recipes are sure to please the beet-hater.
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About Growing Beets
Beets are in the same plant family as spinach and chard. Interestingly, they are also related to common edible weeds such as goosefoot, lamb’s quarters, and pigweed.
All beets make beautiful 2-for-1 root vegetable crops, giving nutritious greens as well as colorful roots. This makes them an efficient way to grow more produce with less work, in a smaller space, or on a busy schedule.
A cool-season vegetable, beets grow best in the spring and fall seasons. They prefer full sun or partial shade with at least four hours of sun each day. Rich, moist, loose soil is essential.
Preparing the Soil
Beets require a well-prepared bed with fertile soil. Two weeks before planting I like to loosen the soil about six to eight inches deep with a digging fork in my no-till garden. Then, mix worm castings and aged manure into the soil.
Choosing a Beet Variety
Beets range from the typical dark red varieties, to varieties with striped interiors, to colors ranging from orange to yellow to white, and even shapes from round to cylindrical.
Here are some varieties that I’ve grown and enjoyed:
- ‘Bull’s Blood‘: Dark red beets with striped interior. These beets are also grown for their beautiful deep red leaves.
- ‘Detroit Dark Red‘: Dark red beets are excellent for winter storage and for canning and pickling.
- ‘Chioggia‘: This pink-red Italian variety has a mild flavor and a candy-striped interior.
- ‘Golden Detroit‘: These golden beets are mild flavored and hold their color when cooked.
Sowing Beet Seeds
Beets can be sown two to four weeks before your spring frost date, and up until eight or nine weeks before your fall frost date. In my hardiness zone 6a garden, that means I can begin sowing around mid-March and sow up until the end of August.
Beets will not tolerate transplanting very well, so your best bet is to sow them directly in the garden.
Beet seeds will have a better rate of germination if they are soaked in water for 24 hours before planting.
Choose a Good Planting Day
Seeds are temperamental. They won’t like soil that is completely waterlogged or soil that is completely bone-dry. Choose a day when the soil is slightly moist, and when there will be a few days following the planting without heavy rain showers (which will wash seeds away).
Photo by Aleks Clark via Flickr
Mark the Rows or Square-Foot Grid
Use the edge of a trowel or garden hoe to mark a planting row. For example, to plant in a bed three feet wide, create furrows to mark three long planting rows. Alternatively, to use the square foot gardening method, you may choose to mark off 12×12-inch blocks.
Sow seeds 1/2-inch deep and one inch apart (farther apart in partial shade) in the depressions marking the planting rows or broadcast the seeds in the desired square-foot block (about 8-9 beet seeds per square-foot).
Cover and Pat the Seeds
Cover the seeds and use your hand or the back of a hoe to pat down the soil firmly.
Use plant markers to label the row or square so you remember what was planted where. I always think I will remember, but even with a clearly mapped out garden plan, I sometimes have trouble! If your beets don’t germinate well, you’ll have a hard time locating them.
Using a gentle spray, water the seeds in well. Seeds need to be watched closely for good germination–the soil can never dry out before seeds have germinated. Check daily and water with a gentle spray if needed. Once the beets have grown to about four to five inches high, mulch in between the rows to help retain moisture and keep weeds down.
Photo by Allyson Boggess via Flickr
Beet seeds actually contain 3 seeds within the seed shell, so thinning the seedlings will be crucial to keep good spacing between your plants. When the seedlings have reached three inches tall, thin the seedlings to four-inch spacing. If you’re growing in shade, five- or six-inch spacing may work better.
Side note: If you have a shady yard, don’t despair! I was able to grow 80 pounds of vegetables by focusing on shade-friendly root and leaf crops in my forest garden.
Would you like to learn more instruction for planting and maintaining a successful garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
For a continuous harvest of beets all season (rather than harvesting a whole bunch all at once), sow beet seeds every 14 days until eight or nine weeks before your fall frost date.
Look at the space you’ve reserved for growing beets, let’s say, four rows of a bed. The first time you sow beets, only sow one row. Then, 14 days later, sow the second row; 14 days after that sow the third row, and finally 14 days later sow the fourth row.
When harvesting a row of beets, blend in some compost soil, aged manure, or worm castings, and then sow that row again. Keep in mind that during the hot, dry periods of summer, you may get low germination rates. Just keep at your regular sowings.
Harvesting and Storing Beets
Beets are harvested starting around 40 days after planting. They’ll have the best flavor if harvested after a light frost at around golf ball size. For longer storage, harvest a little larger at tennis ball size.
According to Root Cellaring, the greens should be cut off about one inch above the root top. Store beet greens and beets separately. They’ll store best at around 32 degrees F with 90-95% humidity. If storing in a refrigerator, store in plastic bags to retain moisture. They should store for at least two months, and up to five months.
Extending the Season
Beet seeds can be sown four weeks earlier than normal when using a cold frame. Follow the sowing directions above, and keep the cold frame closed when the temperature dips below 32 degrees. Otherwise, keep the lid cracked for air movement. Beets will be able to survive without the cold frame starting about two weeks before your spring frost date.
If you would like to try growing food year-round, row covers and cold frames are two ways to extend the harvest season into fall and winter, according to The Winter Harvest Handbook. Beets are hardy to around 29 degrees. Row covers will provide two to four degrees F of frost protection, while cold frames generally offer seven to 10 degrees F of protection. Used together, row covers and cold frames can create an environment with a 9- to 14-degree F temperature difference for crops on the inside, allowing you to harvest almost year-round, depending on your climate.
This means beets in cold frames with row cover would technically be safe down to 15-18 degrees F, especially if they are mulched well. Bales of straw stacked on the outside can add more protection from winter wind.
There are a number of planting combinations that can help to support a good beet harvest.
Companion plants assist each other in growing well, and Carrots Love Tomatoes is the classic guide on the topic. But take caution: Many of the recommended plant combinations have been supported by science while others speak to old wives’ tales. So some combinations may work while others will not provide any noticeable difference. You’ll have to try them and see for yourself!
According to CLT, beets will do well planted with bush beans, onions, and kohlrabi. I suspect bush beans made this list because beets are heavy feeders and will probably enjoy the extra nitrogen that beans produce in the soil. Onions repel pests.
And it is said that kohlrabi makes a good companion to beets because they take the same type of soil preparation, enrichment, and care, making it more efficient to tend to the two neighboring crops. But I’m not sure they ‘assist’ each other.
Personally, I’ve planted my beets next to onions with success.
Diseases of Beets
Beets are most often afflicted by fungal related diseases such as leaf spot and downy mildew. To reduce the chances of fungal infections, be sure to thin seedlings for proper spacing. This will allow for good air flow.
Also follow good watering practices: Water regularly, but not too much. Beets won’t do well in heavy, waterlogged soil. If your garden area is typically waterlogged with heavy soil, raised beds may be your best chance for success with beets.
Line your garden with fragrant, anti-fungal herbs or mulch with them to help prevent a fungal outbreak. Here are a few herbs I like:
Crop rotation is important for vegetables that are heavy feeders of nutrients in the soil, like beets. Rotating crops allows that section of the garden to rest or be rejuvenated. Beets are typically followed with legumes (beans, peas), which replenish the soil with nitrogen, or with lettuce, which is a relatively light feeder of nutrients.
Photo by Andrea via Flickr
Beets in the Edible Landscape
Beets have gorgeous tops, which make them good candidates for the edible landscape. Although my preference is to use fruiting or leafing vegetables in the edible landscape because the whole plant isn’t harvested (think tomatoes or kale, for example); if a temporary empty spot doesn’t bother you after the harvest, then beets will be a beautiful, edible asset to your landscape.
They can even look lovely growing in containers!
How to Use Beets
Now, you’re probably thinking, what in the heck should I do with the beets I grow? No one in my household will eat them, and I’m kind of afraid of them myself!
No problem, I’ve got your covered. I was there once. I had only eaten store-bought, canned beets growing up, and all I have to say is: Blech.
I love, love, love beets roasted with sweet potatoes. Seriously ah-mazing. Also, beets are so nutritious that you should try to sneak them into meals as often as you can. For example, grating fresh beets over a salad will give it a pop of color and nutrition without affecting the taste.
The following recipes will help you break away from ‘blech’!
- Probiotic Beet and Red Cabbage Sauerkraut by Attainable Sustainable
- Beet Kvass by Eight Acres (Yummy, I have some in my fridge right now!)
- How to Cook Beets and Their Greens by Grow Forage Cook Ferment
- 5 Ways to Use Beet Greens by Attainable Sustainable
Pickling and Canning Beets (These aren’t your store-bought, canned beets!)
Beet Snacks & Desserts
- Red Devil’s Food Cupcakes by Homespun Seasonal Living
Beets are a really unique and easy vegetable to grow and a good way to add more nutrition to your homegrown and home cooked meals. I encourage you to try them in your garden and kitchen this year!
Need more ideas for growing vegetables in the permaculture garden?
- How to Prepare for the Winter Garden
- When to Harvest & How to Store Garlic
- Your Guide to Preventing Pests in the Garden
Are you looking for more strategies for your permaculture garden? You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Do you have any tips for growing or using beets in the kitchen?