A dirt-covered beet freshly pulled from the soil does not instinctively rouse the appetite—unless, of course, you know what’s beneath that rough exterior. Beets have nourished civilizations for many centuries, from the Neolithic peoples of the Netherlands to the Roman Empire and 8th-century Babylonia. Those early wild beets, used as food and medicine, were long and sinewy rather than round. Lynn Coulter, author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds, says that spherical beets began to appear during the 15th or 16th century, developed through the slow process of selection.
Today, this Mediterranean native remains a staple of vegetable gardeners around the world, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Its fleshy roots are delectable and good for you. “The roots themselves contain potassium, folic acid, manganese, and lots of fiber; and edible beet greens offer vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron,” says John Jett, Ph.D., a former consumer horticulture specialist with the West Virginia University Extension Service.
Beets, like carrots, turnips, and Swiss chard, are biennial, meaning they flower and set seed their second year of growth (sometimes, though, they bolt prematurely, especially during hot, dry spells). Beets are also very cold-hardy. “I get my seeds in the ground about 4 weeks before our last expected frost in the spring,” says Coulter. “Then I sow more seeds every 2 weeks, to keep a steady supply of fresh, tender beets.” Stop planting when the temperatures hit 75 degrees but then begin sowing seeds again about 8 weeks before the first expected fall frost for a delicious late-season harvest. Coulter gardens in Georgia, but her planting schedule works in cooler climates, too.
Though beet seeds can be started indoors under lights, it’s far simpler to sow them directly in the garden. “Beet seeds can be tricky to germinate because of a hard seed covering,” Jett says. “Soak the seeds in warm water for a few hours before sowing them to increase the chances of germination.”
Beets grow best in full sun and well-drained soil. “Plant them in garden soil that’s been worked to a depth of 8 to 10 inches and cleared of rocks,” Coulter says. “Use lots of good organic material to amend your soil.”
Sow beet seeds to a depth of 1⁄2 to 1 inch and space rows 12 to 18 inches apart. Thin the seedlings to leave 2 to 4 inches of space between plants, using the wider spacing if the beets will be harvested at their fully mature size. It’s important to note that most beet seeds are multigerm (though a handful of monogerm varieties do exist), meaning there is not just a single embryo in each seed but rather a cluster of several. This results in multiple plants emerging from each planted seed, making thinning compulsory. Jett also reminds gardeners that keeping the soil moist throughout the growing season results in roots of better quality. A layer of organic mulch helps retain soil moisture, stabilize temperature, and suppress weeds.
Beets require an ample amount of phosphorus to produce large, healthy roots. Since this nutrient is not very mobile within the soil, it is most often applied as a sidedressing by distributing it along the length of the rows. Soil pH also affects the availability of phosphorus; the mineral is most accessible to plant roots when the pH is between 6.0 and 7.0, which is the favored pH range for beets. If a soil test notes a lack of phosphorus, an early-season, side-dress application of bonemeal or rock phosphate should fill in the gap.
A few insect pests occasionally bother beets. To protect beet foliage from leaf miners, flea beetles, leafhoppers, and other potential troublemakers, cover the newly planted rows with floating row cover and leave it in place until harvest.
‘Early Wonder Tall Top’. A particularly good variety for greens production, this heirloom selection is very early and has large, green leaves with red mid-ribs. It goes on to form 3-to-4-inch globular roots that are fast growing, even in cool soils.
‘Detroit Dark Red’. An open-pollinated selection from the late 1800s, ‘Detroit Dark Red’ is descended from the now-rare variety ‘Early Blood Turnip’. Its roots grow to 3 inches in diameter and store well. It’s also ideal for canning and roasting.
‘Golden’. An 1800s introduction, ‘Golden’ has yellow-fleshed roots with brilliant orange skin. “It’s a gourmet favorite, with buttery, sweet-flavored roots,” says Coulter. “But the seeds don’t always germinate reliably, so plant extra, just in case. The skins slip off easily after they’re cooked, so you don’t have to worry about peeling them first.”
‘Albino’. This surprising heirloom gem is prized for its snow-white roots. Cooks love it because it doesn’t “bleed” crimson but still has a deliciously sweet beet flavor. To prevent the shoulders of ‘Albino’ and other white-fleshed beets from turning green, hill soil up around the plants to cover any exposed root tops.
‘Bull’s Blood’. With deep scarlet leaves and equally vivid roots, ‘Bull’s Blood’ might not have an enticing name, but it sure has appeal in the kitchen. This heirloom is remarkably sweet and is grown as much for its greens as it is for its roots.
‘Chioggia’. “This pre-1840s Italian heirloom is another of my favorites,” says Coulter. Alternating rings of white and rosy pink are found in every slice, giving ‘Chioggia’ its nickname: the candy-cane beet. Because of its sweet, mild flavor, this variety is great for eating fresh, pickling, and baking, and the beautiful coloration doesn’t disappear when the root is cooked.
‘Cylindra’. This Danish heirloom looks more like a wine-colored carrot than a beet. Jett praises ‘Cylindra’ for its 6-inch-long, 2-inch-wide root and the uniform round slices it produces.
Beet greens can be picked and used as baby greens in salad mixes when they are just an inch or two high. Older greens are best served steamed or sautÈed. Roots can be harvested when they reach an inch in diameter, but they remain tender until they measure 3 or 4 inches. “I think the roots and leaves taste better, and are more tender, if they are harvested when they are on the smaller side,” says Coulter. “I don’t let even the big varieties grow as large as the seed packet indicates.”
Before storing unwashed, harvested roots in a plastic bag in the fridge, cut off the tops, but leave an inch or two of the stems intact to keep them from bleeding. Beets should last about a week stored this way. “Long-term beet storage should take place in layers of damp sawdust or sand in a cold (around 32∞F), moist (85 to 90 percent humidity) place,” says Coulter. “A root cellar is ideal.” Beet greens, on the other hand, don’t store well and should be used within a few days of picking.
Beets contain more sugar than starch. Roasting, grilling, and other simple cooking techniques bring out their sweet flavors.
Beets Even a President Could Love
When the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009, they decided to install the first vegetable garden there since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden. The sod was stripped, the soil was tested, amended, and tilled, and the plan was set. But something was missing: beets. President Obama declared his dislike of the roots and they were kept out of the plan.
Garden bloggers across the country launched a “beet campaign.” They surmised that the President had tasted only canned beets and wondered why he wasn’t willing to try homegrown. My radio cohost and I sent one of the White House gardeners (at his request) a copy of our first book, Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More, and a few packets of organic beet seeds (not at his request). We also produced a funny little video for the President imploring him to “Give Beets a Chance” and included it in the package. (Watch “Give Beets a Chance, Mr. President" on YouTube.”
I don’t know whether or not those beet seeds were ever planted. In promoting her recent book about the White House vegetable garden, the First Lady made it clear that she shares her husband’s beetphobia.