Introduction: Beet still grows wild around the coasts of Western Europe and is still sometimes gathered for use as a green vegetable. It is an old crop and has been used as food for humans and livestock since the time of the Romans.
Crop value: Over the years beet has been bred to produce several quite different crops. It is important for its leaves (see Chard) and for its edible root, which is either eaten as a root vegetable or refined to make sugar. In Northern Europe the root is also commonly used for winter animal feed.
If you are aiming for food self-sufficiency then sugar beet could be an important source of sweetener (and calories)
Ease of growing: Beet is a fairly easy crop to grow, so long as you give it a suitably moist soil, a cool sunny climate and you thin and weed properly. If you don’t give it these things, you may end up with lots of top growth and spindly little roots (if this happens you can always eat the leaves)
Leaves: These are actually more nutritious than the roots, containing large amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. They also contain oxalic acid, but this is no more of a problem than it is with spinach.
Roots: These are rich in carbohydrates and many beneficial phytochemicals, including folate, betacyanin and betaine. The contain about 200 calories per pound. Sugar beet may contain up to 20% sugar.
Climate: Beets are a moderately hardy cool season crop that will tolerate some frost. They grow well enough in warmer weather, but higher temperatures (above 75˚F) produce poor quality roots. These tend to be tougher, unevenly colored (zoned) and often somewhat bitter or lacking sweetness. This occurs because on warm nights they use the sugar they produce for further growth, rather than storing it in their roots.
| About Beet |
Germ temp: 50 (70 – 80) 85˚F
Germ time: 5 – 21 days
42 days / 41˚F
16 days / 50˚F
9 days / 59˚F
6 days / 68˚F
5 days / 77˚F * Optimum
5 days / 86˚F
Viability: 5 years
Germination percentage: 60%+
Weeks to grow transplant: 3 – 4
Fertility needs: High
Hardiness: Half hardy
Growing temp: 45 (60 – 70) 75˚F
Plants per person: 10 – 20
Plants per sq ft: 12
Days to harvest: 50 – 100 days
Plant height: 12˝
Plant width: 6 – 12˝
Start inside: 3 – 4 wks before last frost
Plant out: On last frost date
Direct sow: 2 – 4 wks before last frost.
Fall crop: 8 weeks before first frost
Yield per plant: 4 – 8 oz
Yield per square foot: 3 lb sq ft
pH 6.0 (6.5-7.0) 8.0
Beets do well in most soils, but the ideal is loose, sandy, well-drained and close to neutral. It should be quite fertile to get the continuous uninterrupted growth that is necessary to produce good roots. If the soil is poor, growth will be irregular and the roots may show concentric growth rings (zoning).
Like most root crops, they don’t like rocky soil (or wet or acidic ones).
Soil preparation: Beets are quite heavy feeders, though they don’t need a lot of nitrogen. Too much of this encourages top growth at the expense of root growth and retards sugar storage. Like most root crops, they like phosphorus (colloidal phosphate) and potassium (greensand or wood ashes).
Kelp meal can be used to supply essential boron (they need more of this than most plants because they don’t use it very well) as well as other trace elements.
Fork 2 – 4˝ of compost or aged manure (not fresh) into the top 6 – 8˝ of soil. This is where most of the plants feeder roots are found, though these deep rooted plants may go down to 24˝ or more.
If the soil is heavy clay you should loosen it by cultivating deeply and adding organic matter. If this isn’t possible you can dig a trench (at least 6˝ deep and preferably 12˝ deep) and fill it with a mix of compost (or aged manure), sifted soil and sand.
If the soil is acidic add lime to bring the pH up above 6.0.
Where: Beets need full sun for best growth, especially when growing as a fall or winter crop. However in warmer climates they can also do okay in light shade.
When: Beets are quite fast growing, taking 50 – 80 days to maturity. They like cool weather and grow best with warm days (60 – 70˚F) and cool nights. In most of the United States this means growing them as a spring or fall crop.
Succession sowing: You won’t need many plants at one time, unless you really love beets. For a continuous supply of small, tender roots you should plant in succession every 2 – 4 weeks.
Spring: Beets are quite hardy and can be started 3 – 4 weeks before the last frost date. The soil should be at least 50˚F for good germination. They don’t like waterlogged soil, so don’t plant if it is too wet.
Fall: Beets can also be planted in late summer as a fall crop (6 – 10 weeks before first fall frost date). This is the crop to store for winter.
Winter: In mild winter areas you can plant beets in late summer, to mature in fall. They will continue to grow slowly over the winter and can be harvested as needed.
Vernalization: Beets are biennial and theoretically shouldn’t flower until their second year. However if your spring plants grow too big (have stems ¼˝ in diameter), too early, then exposure to cool temperatures (below 50˚F for 2 weeks) can vernalize them. When this happens they think they have already been through one year and bolt as soon as the weather warms up. These plants will use up all of their energy in producing seeds and will never produce useful roots.
Each beet “seed” is actually a cluster of flowers fused together, each one containing a single seed. This is why you end up with several plants from one seed. It is possible to gently break up these clusters and get individual seeds to plant.
The seed clusters also contain a water-soluble germination inhibitor. This can be leached out by soaking them overnight prior to planting. Don’t simply soak them in a bowl of water overnight however, as they can absorb so much water they can be damaged. Instead they should be put on a damp paper towel, so they can absorb moisture slowly. Pre-soaking is most useful in hot dry weather.
You could take this one step further and actually pre‑germinate the seed.
Starting inside: Beets can be grown from transplants, but they are very tolerant of cool temperatures, so this doesn’t give you much advantage for the extra work involved (at best they would just be a little earlier). There is also a danger they will be vernalized if it gets cold again after you plant them out.
Beets don’t like root disturbance, so cell packs or soil blocks work best for starting seed indoors. Sow the seed ½˝ deep, with one seed capsule in each cavity (this will produce more than one plant).
Transplanting beets may retard them by a couple of weeks.
Hardening off: In cold weather the transplants should be hardened off before they go out. You do this by putting the plants outside for 2 hours on the first day, then 4 hours on the second day. Add 2 hours every day for a week, until they are outside all day. Alternatively you can put them in a cold frame for a week. Then you simply open the lid during the day and close it at night (this is certainly less work).
Planting out: Plant out the transplants no earlier than the last frost date, as they aren’t very hardy. To get an earlier start you could warm the soil with cloches before planting and cover the seedlings with cloches.
Direct sowing: Beets are usually direct sown at a depth of ¼ – ¾˝. The appropriate depth depends upon the warmth and dryness of soil; the cooler or wetter it is, the shallower you should plant.
Broadcasting: Scatter the seeds so they are evenly spaced about 2˝ apart across the bed. It’s easier to get the proper spacing with these large seeds, than it is with smaller ones such as carrot. The scattered seed is then covered with a layer of soil. If the soil in the bed has a tendency to crust, cover with a mixture of topsoil and compost.
Rows: The seed can also be sown in rows. Simply make shallow furrows 12 – 18˝ apart across the bed, drop a seed every 2˝ and re-fill the furrow (use cover soil if necessary).
Spacing: The distance between plants has a direct effect on the final size of the root, the closer the spacing, the smaller the root. Spacing also affects the time they take to mature, the more room they have, the faster they will mature.
5˝ spacing for large roots or poor soil.
4˝ spacing for main summer planting.
3˝ spacing for small roots for pickling.
Seedling thinning: If germination is good, you will have a little clump of seedlings every 2˝ (remember every “seed” actually contains several seeds). These clumps thin themselves to some extent, the largest and most vigorous ones eventually crowding out the others. However it may be better to do it yourself so they don’t compete. Just pinch them off at ground level when the tallest seedling is about an inch high.
Beets need to grow quickly, so they can produce plenty of sugar to store in their roots. They can only do this if they get everything they need, when they need it.
When all of the plants are growing well you need to start thinning, so they are spaced properly. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. Insufficient thinning is one of the commonest causes of failure to grow good beets. If the plants are overcrowded the roots will be small and stunted and they may suffer from disease problems caused by poor air circulation.
First thinning: Thin the growing plants when they are 3 – 4 inches tall. Do this at the same time you are weeding them, ideally in cool cloudy weather. The first thinning should give you a single plant every 1 ½ – 2˝. Don’t thin them to the final spacing at this time, as some might not survive.
Second thinning: When the roots have swollen to an inch in diameter, thin them again. This time to the desired final spacing. The thinnings from this round are big enough to eat in salads or stir-fries.
Feeding: The plants need a moderate amount of nitrogen when they are young (until the leaves are 4˝ tall). If you soil isn’t very fertile, you may want to give them a feed of compost tea or liquid kelp every 2 – 3 weeks. Don’t give a high nitrogen fertilizer as it can encourage too much leaf growth.
Weeding: Beets grow slowly when first planted and can’t compete with weeds very well, so it is important that they are weeded properly. It is best to hand weed, as their shallow roots and raised shoulders are easily damaged by weeding tools.
Water: Consistent watering (at least 1˝ per week) is essential for good root production. Beets grown without sufficient water may have tough, woody roots, may show concentric whitish zoning, may crack and may bolt prematurely.
Regular watering is particularly important in warm weather, as it can help to prevent them getting woody and poorly flavored.
Don’t over-water your beets however, it is possible to give them too much. This can result in bushy, luxuriant tops and small roots.
If water supplies are limited, keep the soil evenly moist while the plants are young. Then give them extra water when the roots are sizing up, to boost their final size. Be careful though, as irregular watering can cause splitting.
Mulch: This helps to keep down weeds, conserves moisture and keeps the soil cool (which is important for beets). In spring wait until the soil has warmed up to near 60˚F before applying it however.
Cracked shoulders: The rounded shoulders of the root commonly stick out of the soil, exposed to the elements and this can result in cracking and woodiness. Cylindrical varieties are particularly prone to this. It can be prevented by earthing up with soil, or using mulch. A good leaf canopy also helps.
Bolting: Though beets are biennial, they sometimes bolt if planted very early in the year. As I explained earlier this is caused by them being vernalized by low temperatures. Once this occurs there isn’t anything you can do about it, so you need to prevent it happening by planting at the right time. Some varieties are more resistant to bolting than others.
Forking: Forked roots are most often caused by rocky soil or fresh manure, but careless transplanting can also be a cause (they don’t like it).
Pests: The only significant pests I have encountered have been leaf miners. As you don’t normally grow them for their leaves, this is only a problem if they get out of hand and start to destroy entire leaves. You can crush them in the leaf and scrape off the white egg clusters, but it’s easier to use row covers.
Beets may also suffer from aphids, flea beetles and caterpillars. You can use row covers for all of these too.
Diseases: These include cercospora leaf spot, downy mildew, curly top virus and scab. You control these in the usual ways, by keeping foliage dry, controlling sucking insects and giving good air circulation.
Boron deficiency: This results in corky black areas in the root and is known as black heart. Boron is only needed in minute amounts and too much is toxic to plants. The best quick source is liquid kelp or compost tea. If you have a problem with this, add plenty of compost to your soil as it is the best source of boron.
When: You can start harvesting the roots as soon as they are large enough to be worthwhile (1½ – 2˝), which should be in about 60 days or so. Scrape some soil from the base of the plant to get a good look at the root.
Young beets are nice and tender, but not very sweet. The roots get sweeter as they get bigger, but also more fibrous and less tender. Generally they are good until they reach 3 – 4˝ in diameter, but when they get bigger than this they have a tendency to become woody. To some extent this depends on the variety, growing methods and time of year, so it’s not always the case. In winter they stay in good condition for much longer.
How: Usually you can simply pull up the roots by the tops (if these are tender they can be used for greens, so don’t waste them). If you are going to store the roots be very careful when harvesting, as the slightest injury can lead to premature decay. To prevent moisture loss from the root, cut off the leaves to within an inch or two of the root. Don’t cut too close to the crown as this may cause them to bleed. If you want to store them, leave the long stringy root tips in place and don’t wash them.
Storage: Beets store well and in Europe they were once an important winter crop for peasants and their livestock.
The roots can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for several weeks.
In mild climates the roots are best left in the ground where they will continue to grow slowly all winter.
In colder climates they can also be stored in the ground, though they will have stopped growing. They should be covered with a thick mulch to keep the ground from freezing.
In very cold climates they don’t keep very well in the ground, so are usually dug and stored in a root cellar (or something similar). They are usually packed in a box filled with damp sand or sawdust. If stored at 32 – 40˚F and 90%+ humidity, they will last for 4 – 6 months. On the farm they were once regularly stored in a clamp (see Potatoes). They shouldn’t be allowed to freeze however.
Beets can also be canned, pickled, frozen or dried.
Seed saving: Beets are cross-pollinated by the wind, so must be isolated from other varieties (and from chard). This means having only one variety flowering at one time within a distance of two miles (that’s the theory – if not very practical).
Beet is a biennial, which means the root has to survive the winter before it can produce seed. In mild climates, you can simply leave them in the ground (cover with mulch if necessary). In colder climates you may have to lift the roots and store them in a root cellar, as described above. Replant the best roots in a convenient spot in spring and the seed will ripen by midsummer.
A flowering beet plant may get to be 8 feet tall and can be quite top heavy, so may need staking to prevent it falling over. You will get a lot of seed from one plant, let alone 5 plants, which is the minimum number required to maintain some genetic variability.
Unusual growing ideas
Multi‑planting: This works well with beets. Simply sow two seed capsules per soil block (or plug tray) and thin to leave the best 3 or 4 plants in each block. You then plant out the whole thing and let them all grow to the desired size.
Newer varieties may be sweeter than older ones and resistant to diseases such as downy mildew.
Bulls Blood: Has deep red leaves that are popular for use in salad mixes.
Lutz Green Leaf – A great all around variety.
Monogerm: Has only one seed per capsule.
Detroit Dark Red: Perhaps the commonest variety.
Chioggia: This Italian heirloom has red and white striations. It is very pretty, but not particularly tasty.
Burpees Golden: This species is very sweet because it contains some genes from sugar beet.
Formanova: A cylindrical beet with tasty tops and roots.
As a commercial crop the sugar beet is far more important than beet roots. I have never seen specific varieties of sugar beet for the home gardener, just a generic “Sugar Beet” (and that isn’t easy to find).
The roots can be eaten raw in salads, cooked as a vegetable (especially in soup), or pickled. It is also very good when roasted.
Don’t forget about the leaves, as they are the most nutritious part. The young leaves may not be as good as those of chard, but they are still useful as a potherb, or a colorful minor addition to salads.
The roots can be used as a pink food coloring.
Grated sugar beet is sometimes used as a sweetener for cakes and other baked goods. You can also make your own sugar fairly easily, though this is of dubious health benefits.
Beets have also been fermented to produce alcohol for drinking (wine, beer, vodka, brandy) and fuel.
| Making sugar |
Begin by shredding or finely chopping the roots and put them in a pot.
Add just enough water to cover them and cook for an hour until soft.
Then strain off the liquid and press the mix to extract as much liquid as
possible. The next step is to boil off the water to make a thick syrup. Be
very careful towards the end of this process, as when it starts to thicken
as it can burn very easily. The stuff remaining at the end is sugar, or some close approximation thereof.