Beets can seem like somewhat mysterious specimens, especially the gelatinous canned variety. But these bright-red root vegetables are a sweet addition to any edible garden and every vegetable lover should know how to grow beets.
Named among the world's healthiest foods, beets are rich in phytonutrients called betalains that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification effects in the body. They're also a great source of folate. Quartering unpeeled beets and steaming them for 15 minutes preserves nutrients and makes them deliciously soft. In addition to the crimson flesh of beet roots, the chard-like greens are edible and often eaten in salad. In fact, chard – a beet cousin - is sometimes called “bottomless beets.”
Beets love cool weather, so they're best planted in early spring and in late summer for fall harvest. They can be planted up to 30 days before the last frost of the spring season, and flourish in soil temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees. Beets perform well when planted alongside bush beans, onions, kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce.
Types of beets
Though most people are familiar with red beets, you may not know that beets actually come in white and golden-fleshed varieties and in an array of shapes from spherical to flat and long. Though the 'garden beet,' Beta vulgaris conditiva, is the type grown for food, there are two other types – sugar beets, which are grown for refined sugar, and fodder beets, used as animal feed.
There are a wide variety of garden beet cultivars that offer different advantages. Ruby Queen and Sangria are picture-perfect, round and red; Sweetheart is extra-sweet; Little Ball is small and tender and Golden has a buttery color and a mild flavor. If you plan to grow your beets for their greens, some good choices include Green Top Bunching, Crosby Egyptian and Early Wonder.
How to plant beets
- Choose a planting site that gets full sun throughout the day.
- Amend the soil with compost and loosen to a depth of at least 12 inches. Beets are at their most tender when grown in loose, sandy soil.
- Plant each beet seed – which is actually a cluster of seeds in a bit of dried beet flesh – at a depth of one-half inch, about one inch apart in rows spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.
- Water well and keep the soil moist throughout the season, but protect the soil from hard rain that could cause the surface of the soil to harden.
- Thin seedlings to one to three inches apart. Thinned plants can be eaten raw in salads.
- Weed the garden bed frequently to prevent weeds from stealing nutrients and disturbing beet roots.
How to harvest beets
- Pull up one beet to check the size about 60 days after planting. Beets are suitable for cooking, canning or pickling at about one and a half inches in diameter.
- Cut off the tops about one inch above the roots before storing.
- Store harvested beets at 32 degrees and 95 percent humidity. They will keep for several weeks if stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
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