Beets are one of the least appreciated garden crops, in my opinion. The earliest beets had long, carrot-shaped roots and ranged in color from reddish black to bright yellow-orange, and even white, this latter type having the benefit of being very sweet and not bleeding when boiled!. Until a few hundred years ago, yellow beets were preferred, but over time the now familiar round, red beet gained ascendancy. One of my favorites is the heirloom Chioggia beet (also know as the Candystripe beet).
Beets are biennials; during their first season they increase in size, and under favorable conditions store their excess food reserves in a swollen root. In their second season this food reserve is used to produce a central stalk on which flowers, and then seed, are borne. Most gardeners simply plant them as annuals, of course, buying new seed as needed.
The best soil for beets is nearly neutral, has ample organic matter, and is well drained; cold, wet, acid soils won’t grow good beets, and the foliage will show it—the areas between the leaf veins will be pale yellow with a mottled appearance. They love well- prepared raised beds, but too rich a soil may cause forking and hairiness in the roots and increase the chance that the plants will run to seed without forming usable roots. Therefore we put beets, along with the other root crops, in the third part of our four-year rotation, immediately preceding the legumes, which help restore soil nitrogen levels for the replanting of nutrient-hungry leaf crops.
Beets are a cool-season crop, and in hot climates are grown spring and fall; matured during hot weather, they will often be tough and woody, with an unpleasant flavor. The first sowing of beets should be in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. On rare occasions a late cold snap will fool them into thinking that they’ve already endured a winter, and they will run to seed; but if this happens the second planting (we sow in succession every two weeks or so) will quickly fill in the harvest gap. You’ll want to plant about ten feet of beets for each adult family member over the course of the season.
Beet seeds are actually small, withered fruits containing four to eight seeds, so they should be sown sparsely to avoid later thinning. Set the seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep depending on soil type, moisture, and temperature conditions; they should be placed one or two inches apart in rows eight to twelve inches apart, depending on the cultivar and its size. Equidistant hex bed spacing is eight inches; the two or three seeds sown in each spot can later be thinned to the strongest plant. Leaf chard (grown and harvested small) can also be planted on an eight-inch spacing, but stem chard (grown for its broad stems) should have at least a foot per plant.
Once the plants are an inch or two high, thin the seedlings to 1/2 inch apart. About three weeks later, thin once more. Give carrot-rooted beets a final spacing of two inches; four inches is enough room for the standard round beets, and six inches a piece will allow the large, late storage beets like Lutz Winter Keeper to fulfill their genetic potential. This time you can eat the thinnings as baby beets. Keep the bed free of weeds, and if the beets start to grow up out of the soil, hill them a bit to keep their shoulders from turning green and tough. The carrot-rooted types are most likely to do this.
The worst pest we have had with beets in the East until recently was the spinach leaf miner, and sometimes Box Elder bugs. Around 2010 a new pest showed up, called the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) and they seem to like beets as much as anything — and they do like most everything. A science teacher friend came by one day during the height of stink bug season, and we decided to monitor the population. The number of stink bugs you see on the screen in the photo to the left we picked off of one six foot section of a three foot wide bed, planted with three rows of beets! And — worst of all — nothing seems to kill them once they get past the infant stage.
The leaf miners are much less of a problem. This pest is the larva of a small fly which lays a mass of small, white, cylindrical eggs on the underside of the leaves in late spring. After hatching, the larvae burrow into the leaves and then chew passages in between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves, hence their name. Papery gray areas on the leaves are a sure sign of leaf miners, and infested leaves should be removed from the plants and burned to destroy the larvae. In our garden this pest has a relatively short damage cycle, and if we can protect the plants with a floating row cover that keeps the fly from laying her eggs, the cycle can be broken. An equally easy method is to delay planting until after the active season of these 1/4-inch, two-winged gray flies.
Western gardeners may have more problems with the beet webworm, a yellow or green segmented caterpillar 1/2-inch or more long, with a longitudinal black stripe down its body and small black spots on each segment. What you are likely to see, though, is its hideout, a leaf that has been rolled up and secured with webbing. Snap off the leaf and crush or burn it.
The major disease of beets is leaf spot, which is favored by cool, wet soils or seasons. It shows up first as small circular tan or brown spots with purplish borders scattered over the leaf surface; eventually whole leaves may yellow and fall off, leading to elongation of the plant’s crown. Pick off the leaves and mulch the plants to control the disease, as it spreads through rain or irrigation splash. Burn or turn under all plant residues at the end of the season and move your beets to another bed—good garden cleanup and rotation will prevent most beet disease from ever getting a foothold. Beet cultivars resistant to leaf spot are not available, as well.
You can harvest beets at any time. The roots are best harvested once they have reached 1/2 inch or more in diameter, but for storage the roots can be much larger, up to four or even six inches in diameter. Use special varieties adapted for storage and plant ninety days before the first fall frost, so that they are ready just as the weather cools down in fall. After harvest, cut the tops 1/2 inch or so above the crown of the plant, and store the roots in damp sand or sawdust just above freezing. Under good conditions they should keep three to four months.
Beets can also be overwintered in the ground for early spring use, but should be harvested before growth starts in spring. Once the plant breaks dormancy, the root becomes increasingly bland and fibrous, as the support structure of the seed stalk is constructed by the plant from the accumulated sugars in the root. In cold climates a deep mulch or cold frame / high tunnel will be necessary to prevent freezing of the crown, which will cause the roots to rot.
Consider baking your beets to serve to avoid bleeding (staining the water), or grow the golden or white beets, which do not bleed. When cooking the Chioggia beet, be sure to cook them whole, or the beautiful pattern inside the roots will be lost.