Beets, like many root vegetables are biennials, which, if not harvested, will bloom in the second year of growth. One of the interesting facts about beets is they are closely related to Swiss chard, which can easily be seen by the similarity in their leaf structure and the intense colour of the petioles, or stems, not to mention their flavour. In botany, garden beets are differentiated from sugar beets and mangelwurzel beets through a complicated series of subspecies and variety names. Sugar beets have a very high concentration of sucrose, and are grown for processing into table sugar. Mangelwurzel beets are typically grown as animal fodder.
The beets we like are harvested for their baby leaves as salad greens, and for their sweet, crunchy roots. These can be enjoyed as baby beets, or grown on to mature size for winter storage. The roots are peeled and then steamed or sliced and sautéed as a delicious vegetable dish. Many people enjoy them raw with vinegar. The pairing of sour vinegar and sweet beet root makes them prime candidates for pickling. They can also be fermented to make a very tasty wine, and of course, they are the key ingredient in borscht.
Beet roots contain a pigment called betanin, which is used as a food colouring in everything from tomato paste to breakfast cereals. Some people are unable to break down another pigment in beets called betacyanin, and they may experience pink urine after eating beets.
Beets are fantastically good for you. They contain a host of chemicals and compounds that are thought to improve cardiovascular health, protect against liver disease, regulate stomach acidity, and lower blood pressure. They are rich in folate, vitamins B and C, and potassium. Beets contain high concentrations of the element boron, which is believed to play a key role in producing human sex hormones. Perhaps this is why, since Roman times, they have been considered an aphrodisiac.
We turn to the curious insights of 17th century English physician Nicholas Culpeper:
The red Beet is good to stay the bloody flux, women’s courses, and the whites, and to help the yellow jaundice; the juice of the root put into the nostrils, purges the head, helps the noise in the ears, and the tooth-ach; the juice snuffed up the nose, helps a stinking breath, if the cause lie in the nose, as many times it does, if any bruise has been there; as also want of smell coming that way.
Beet seeds are actually little fruits, or “nutlets,” that contain one to four seeds. They are extremely easy to grow in a wide variety of soils, but do best with a neutral pH in well drained soil supplemented with finished compost. Many growers apply boron to beet fields at a rate of three pounds per acre —but it is easy to over-apply boron, so for the cautious home gardener it’s not necessary. Refrigerate beets quickly after harvesting, or store the roots around 2°C (36°F) in well-ventilated containers in high humidity. Aim for 95% humidity for best results.
Each year in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, they celebrate the Beet Festival at Schrute Farms. Events include the Reddest Beet and Purplest Beet competitions, as well as beet cook offs, and more. Sugar beet festivals abound all over North America, but Sugar Beet Days in Mead, Colorado, features live music, cooking, a petting zoo, a farm toy auction, and the straw bale throw and skillet toss competitions.
How to Grow Beets from Seed:
Difficulty: Easy, but not well suited to containers, except for harvest as baby leaves or microgreens.
Timing: Sow outdoors 4 weeks after the last frost date through to mid-summer. Beets will not produce roots if planted when the soil is too cold.
Sowing: Sow 1cm (½”) deep, about 2cm (1”) apart.
Soil: Beets are moderate feeders so plant in deeply dug, composted soil, and water regularly—dry soil will increase the amount of zoning (pale rings in the beet). Mix ½ cup of complete organic fertilizer per 1.5-3m (5-10’) of row into the soil below the seed furrow.
Growing: Seeds will germinate in 5-12 days, depending on soil temperature. For uniformly sized beets, thin carefully to 7-15cm (3-5”) apart when seedlings are 5cm (2”) tall. Eat thinned plants, roots and all. Root size is controlled by spacing and variety.
Harvest: Harvest at any size. Eat the greens, too. Trim the leaves from the roots, leaving 5cm (2”) of stubble – this will lengthen the storage life of the roots.
Storage: Store in the ground or in moist peat or sand just above freezing. Beet also pickles well, of course.
Seed info: In optimum conditions at least 75% of seeds will germinate. Soil temperature for germination: 10-26°C (50-80°F). Usual seed life: 3 years.
Growing for seed: If the purpose is to grow for seed, isolate your crop from other beet and Swiss chard seed crops by 2-5 km.
Pests & Disease: If beets have black cankers in the roots, soil may need more boron. Dissolve 1 Tbsp of borax (in the laundry section of your grocery store) to 4L (8.5 US pints) of water, and spread evenly over 9 sq. m (100 sq ft) of soil. Do not apply at a heavier rate. Circular lesions with a purple halo on the leaf indicate cercospora leaf spot. Prevent by rotation and sanitation. Leaf miner maggots cause blistered grey tunnels in leaves. You can squish them inside the leaf. Floating row cover carefully applied over beets will prevent the leaf miner fly from laying its eggs.
The most common problem we hear regarding poor success with beets is that they formed big bushy tops, but small, unsatisfactory roots. This is almost always an indicator that nitrogen was out of balance with phosphorus and potassium. These soil “macronutrients” are symbolized by the NPK ratio numbers found on fertilizers. If garden soil is prepared with fresh Sea Soil or lots of composted chicken manure, the nitrogen levels can be extremely high, and that’s great for leafy greens like lettuce and spinach, but it’s not good at all for root vegetables. So plant beets in soil that has not been super-charged, and use a bit of the Gaia All Purpose 4-4-4 fertilizer. You’ll have great results!
Growing Beet Microgreens
Microgreens can be grown in a variety of containers. Why not recycle some grocery packaging? Cut a clean milk carton in half down its length, and you have two trays suitable for microgreens. Or break a clear plastic “clamshell” package in two and use it to grow some food. Add about 2cm (1″) of sterilized seed starting mix to whatever container you choose, and then sow your beet seeds fairly thickly. Remember that each beet nutlet can produce as many as four seedlings. Push the seed lightly into your soil and water with a mister, keeping the soil just moist, not wet. As soon as the seeds sprout, you want to grow them in a very brightly lit area like a south facing window, or under artificial lights like our Growlight Garden. The microgreens shown above were grown in the Growlight Garden, which kept them nice and compact, but brought out the beautiful colour. Harvest as the first pair of true leaves are emerging.