Growing Beets: From Garden to Table

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Beet roots and their greens can be baked, boiled, steamed, pickled, and canned, and are delicious in soups or salads.

Growing beets (Beta vulgaris) is the perfect project for the black-thumbed gardener. This pretty, versatile vegetable thrives with a minimum of care in almost any soil and climate and is practically pest- and disease-free. Its tasty roots (which can be baked, boiled, steamed or pickled for use in side dishes, soups and salads) and its colorful, leafy tops (which, in my opinion, are the most delicious of cooked greens) are extremely low in fat and calories. The roots are also rich in potassium and contain small amounts of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, phosphorus, niacin and vitamins A and C. The red-veined, dark green leaves, when eaten raw, provide huge amounts of potassium, twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, half the RDA of vitamin C, goodly portions of calcium, protein, phosphorus and iron and small amounts of niacin and riboflavin. On top of all that, successive plantings and root cellaring (not to mention freezing, canning and drying) make it possible to enjoy a home-grown beet crop all year long.

Beets are a basic part of the world’s diet, but the vegetable as we now know it is relatively new to agriculture. The beet originated in southern Europe as a leafy plant with nonfleshy roots. It was cultivated in this form by the Greeks and Romans–the latter used it to restore flavor to wine that had deteriorated in the vat–and by Europeans of the Middle Ages. Swiss chard, a “bottomless” beet, is an improved version of those early leafy types, and it wasn’t until the 16th century that a large-rooted beet began to be cultivated. This carrot-shaped version, still available today, is slow to mature, but it keeps so well that it’s used widely for winter storage. Today’s more popular round beet was developed just over a half-century ago. In between the long and the round types is an oval-shaped beet, known as the “intermediate,” “tankard” or “canister” beet.

Selecting a Beet Variety to Grow

When selecting a beet variety, you should consider the crop’s intended use. Red and purple roots are the most popular, but you can also opt for white and gold varieties, which won’t “bleed” when cut. Some people like the long beets–such as Denmark’s tender Cylindra, also called Tender Sweet (55 to 60 days to maturity)–which in addition to storing well are easier to slice.

If you’ll be growing beets in heavy soil, under cloches, in frames or in a container, choose a round variety. (Beets make very pretty patio plants and are decorative enough to be planted with flowers.) You might also select a type grown mainly for its leaves. (Try the tender and sweet Lutz Green Leaf. The roots take 80 days to develop to full size, but in the meantime you can feast on its pink-ribbed, glossy green leaves, which don’t grow bitter as they get bigger.) As yet another option, you can choose between quickly maturing types for early spring planting and late or main-crop types, which take longer to mature but which keep well through the winter. For example, the early-maturing Ruby Queen (52 to 55 days) is excellent for pickling and canning; Early Wonder (48 to 55 days) transplants well and produces especially good greens; and orange-skinned Golden Beet (50 to 55 days) has yellow flesh that remains tender and sweet as it matures, and yields greens that taste delicious whether fresh or cooked. Golden Beet does, however, germinate more slowly than most other varieties.

Some main-crop types include the ever-popular Detroit Dark Red (60 days), which adapts well to various regions and is great for freezing, canning or storing. (Many of the new hybrids are improved Detroit types.) Long Season (78 to 80 days) has very tasty leaves and rough-looking but tender, sweet roots, which are excellent for storage. Then there are baby beets, developed especially for canning whole, such as Little Ball (56 days), whose roots stay small (about one and a half inches) even as they age.

When and How to Plant Beets

Beta vulgaris is a biennial that’s grown as an annual. Classed as a cool-weather crop, beets obtain their greatest growth when temperatures average around 60° to 65°F. Yet they are fairly heat tolerant. However, if you live where summers are extremely hot, use beets as a spring, fall or winter crop, timing your plantings so they don’t mature during the hottest weather.

In most parts of the country, sow the seeds outdoors from two to four weeks before the average date of the last frost, but not before the soil has warmed above 40°F. (Beets are quite hardy and can withstand frosts but not heavy freezes.) To extend the beet season, make successive plantings every three weeks until midsummer. For an autumn crop, plant about 10 weeks before the first fall frost.

Beets transplant well, so in areas with short growing seasons you can start seeds indoors about four weeks before it’s time to set them out in the garden.

While beets will tolerate partial shade, they prefer a location with full sun, and, like any other root crop, beets need a loose, well-worked, well-drained soil free of rocks and clods and rich in well-rotted organic matter. Be sure, also, to supply plenty of potassium by working in wood ashes. Don’t, however, plant in any area that’s been freshly manured, as this can produce forked roots. Ideally, the pH should be 6.5. A too-acid soil will stunt the crop’s growth and can also prevent beets from absorbing boron–a deficiency that will show up as black, bitter-tasting spots, brown hearts or lack of growth. Have the soil tested for both its pH and trace minerals, and if it’s too acidic, add lime. If your plot is deficient in boron, sprinkle one to one and a half tablespoons of household borax per 100 feet of row.

Before planting, particularly in warm weather, soak the seeds for 12 hours to encourage germination, which generally takes from seven to 14 days unless the weather turns cold. Each seed is actually a small ball of seeds, or “fruit,” that will produce four to six seedlings. (A few varieties now come in a fragmented seed, known as a monogerm, which produces only one seedling instead of a cluster, thus eliminating a lot of thinning.)

Sow the seeds one-half inch deep and two to six inches apart with one foot between rows. Raised-bed spacing should be around six inches. When the seedlings are from two to four inches tall, thin to stand one and a half inches apart, and use the thinnings in salads or cook them like spinach. When the beet roots reach about one inch in diameter, pull every other one to allow space for further growth.

Beets don’t compete well with weeds, so be diligent about getting rid of these intruders. However, you must also be very gentle and hand-pull any weeds close to the roots, since careless hoeing could easily damage the delicate beet roots, making them bleed and increasing their susceptibility to diseases. As beet leaves grow, they can usually smother out competing weeds, but it’s still advisable after thinning to put down a mulch to conserve moisture. Just be sure the soil is damp before applying it, since a lack of moisture will cause the plants to bolt and the roots to crack or become stringy or tough. In hot, dry weather, supplement any rainfall to give the plants about two gallons of water per square yard on a weekly basis–but no more than this unless you’re raising the crop primarily for greens, because excess water will create leaf growth at the expense of the roots.

How to Harvest and Store Beets

Generally speaking, beet roots are most tender and tasty when one and a half to three inches in diameter, and most will begin to deteriorate when left in the ground much longer than 10 days after reaching full size. Distinct white rings in the flesh when the roots are cut are a sign of old age (except in some varieties, such as Chioggia, which naturally have these rings), and such beets won’t keep well. Fresh, prime beets can be refrigerated for one to three weeks.

On a dry day in mid-autumn, harvest the main crop for storing, gently pulling the roots by hand and being careful not to bruise them with careless handling. Shake off any adhering dirt, and twist off the tops, leaving an inch or two of stems. (Cutting the leaves will cause the roots to bleed, resulting in less color and flavor.) After discarding, or immediately using, any bruised or damaged roots, layer the others (don’t let them touch) in sand, peat or sawdust in boxes (wood is best, but plastic will do). Store the boxes in a cool place, such as a tool shed, garage or cellar. If kept at a temperature of between 40° to 50°F, the beets will remain in good condition for up to six months. In warmer climates, the crop can be left in the ground during winter if protected from frost with a covering of straw or leaves. The roots then can be harvested as needed until the ground freezes. Any remaining beets can be dug up the following spring when the earth thaws.

Because both beet roots and tops are low-acid vegetables, care must be taken when canning them.

Canning Beets

Cook roots for 15-25 minutes, until skins slip off easily. (Uncooked beets will bleed when cut; cooked ones won’t.) Slice or cube the vegetable as desired, and pack the pieces into jars to within 1″ of the tops. Add boiling water to within 1″ of jar tops, making sure water covers the beets during processing. If desired, add 1/2 teaspoon salt per pint and 1 teaspoon per quart. Put on lids and screw bands as manufacturer directs. Process jars at 10 pounds of pressure for 30 minutes for pints and 35 minutes for quarts.

Pickling Beets

Cook and remove skins from 4 dozen small beets. Combine 2 cups sugar, 3 1/2 cups vinegar, 1 1/2 cups water and 1 tablespoon salt in a saucepan. Tie up 2 sticks cinnamon, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, 1 teaspoon allspice and 1 thinly sliced lemon in a cheesecloth bag, and add to saucepan. Heat to boiling, and boil 5 minutes. Pack beets into jars to within 1/4″ of tops, and cover with the boiling syrup. Put on lids and screw bands according to directions, and process in a boiling water bath for 30 minutes. Makes about 6 pints.

Freezing Beets

Cook beets in boiling water to cover (25-30 minutes for small beets; 45-50 minutes for large ones). Peel and cool promptly, and slice if necessary. Pack into containers, seal, label, and freeze.

Canning Beet Greens

Select leaves from young plants, and rinse well. Discard insect-eaten or injured leaves, and trim off stems and large mid-ribs. Place about 2 1/2 pounds of greens in a cheesecloth bag, and steam until well wilted. Pack in jars to within 1/2″ of tops. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt for pints and 1 teaspoon for quarts. Cover with boiling water, and process at 10 pounds of pressure for 45 minutes for pints and 70 minutes for quarts.

Freezing Beet Greens

Select and prepare leaves as above, and blanch 2 minutes in boiling water or 3 minutes in steam, stirring to prevent leaves from matting together. Cool, pat dry, and freeze. One to 1 1/2 pounds of fresh leaves will yield 1 pint of frozen greens.

Beets in Mustard Sauce

4 cups cooked beets, cut into 1/2″ matchsticks
1 tablespoon white cider vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped dill
Salt and pepper to taste
2 hard-boiled egg yolks, finely minced
Parsley or dill sprigs

Place beets in a salad bowl. In another small bowl combine vinegar, lemon juice and sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add mustard and olive oil, and whisk until creamy. Add parsley and dill, and mix well. Pour over beets, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, and refrigerate at least 4 hours. Serve on a bed of lettuce, garnishing with minced egg yolks and sprigs of parsley or dill just before serving. Serves 6-8.

Beet and Yogurt Salad

2 cups sliced cooked beets
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 apple, cored and chopped
Grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
2 2/3 cup plain yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix together beets, celery and apple. To make a dressing, combine lemon juice and rind with yogurt. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over beet mixture, and toss lightly. This is particularly good as a side dish to cold meats. Serves 4.

Blender-Style Russian Borscht

1 quart beef, chicken or vegetable stock
1cup beet juice
1cup cooked and cubed beets
Juice and rind of 1 lemon
1 cup plain yogurt or sour cream
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 sprig parsley
1/2 teaspoon tarragon

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Chill. Garnish with minced chives and a dollop of sour cream, if desired. Serves 6.

MOTHER’s gardener, Susan Sides, passes on some good advice for planting beets: Have you ever noticed how certain plants seem to germinate better when the seeds are generously sown? Beets definitely prefer a thick planting. Of course, they must be thinned eventually–unless you take the advice of market gardener Shepherd Ogden and do your planting in bunches. To do this, sow two to three seeds per cell in a multicelled tray, then transplant the seedling clumps six inches apart.

I’m sold. Last year’s trials with this method fostered excellent germination and reduced the chore of thinning beets to zero.