Beets are an easy crop to grow and in the last decade or so, they've become more popular on the plates in American homes and restaurants.
Beets are a root vegetable. Their binomial name is "beta vulgaris," which basically means "common beet." Curiously, Swiss chard also has the binomial name "beta vulgaris," because they are closely related. They originated from the same plant subspecies centuries ago.
Beets are easy to grow in the garden, and they do better in cooler weather. They are a popular spring, fall, and winter crop around the United States. Many different varieties are available for the garden. The most recognized beets are deep red in color with a spherical root, but cultivars have been developed with gold flesh and even white flesh. If you've ever cooked fresh beets, you know the bright and intense pinkish red color gets everywhere, and can stain clothing, countertops, and anything else it touches.
Some of the more commonly-grown cultivars include:
I have had success with Detroit Dark Red and Babybeat. There are dozens of more varieties available, especially if you look for heirloom beet cultivars. Check out the offerings at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds* and Seed Savers Exchange.*
Beets can be grown for their roots or their greens. Beet greens can have a strong flavor and younger, smaller leaves and stems are usually preferred for their milder taste. Beet sprouts can be eaten as a microgreen in salads, as well.
Sprout of a Detroit Dark Red Beet
Beet seeds are planted directly in the garden, and should not be planted from transplants. As with many root vegetables, transplanting can disrupt development of the root. Even so, it is possible to transplant from starter plants.
Plant the seeds between 1/2" to 1" deep in the soil. Beets prefer loose soil that contains a good amount of organic matter, such as compost.
Each beet seed is actually a small cluster of tiny seeds. Most likely, when the sprouts emerge, several sprouts will come up in one spot. Beets should be thinned to one plant every 4 inches for regular sized beets, or every 2 inches for miniature beets. If you are growing beets for microgreens, they do not need to be thinned at all!
Keep the soil well-watered, but not soggy.
Beets prefer full sun like most garden vegetables, although they can tolerate partial shade. They grow more slowly in partial shade and roots may not grow as large.
Beets are attractive in the garden as they grow! Red beet varieties usually have a red stem and red veins in the deep green leaves. The gold varieties have yellow stems and veins, and their leaves are often a lighter green.
Assuming they are grown in gardening soil rich in organic matter, extra fertilizer is not generally needed. A balanced organic fertilizer is your best bet. Some companies also offer specialty fertilizers for root vegetables.
A "balanced fertilizer" is a fertilizer that provides roughly the three macronutrients that all plants need, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, in equal proportions. Look at the package and find the "N-P-K" numbers on the label (or in the information about the fertilizer in the catalog or online catalog.) N is the chemical symbol for nitrogen, P is the symbol for phosphorus, and K is the symbol for potassium. A balanced fertilizer will have numbers equal or close to each other, for example, 4-4-4, or 3-4-3. That's enough to get you started - for a more in-depth discussion of the meaning of N-P-K see this article from the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension.
Like all garden vegetables, pests and diseases can impact your beet crop. Pests that feed on your beets include leaf miners, leaf hoppers, flea beetles, aphids and caterpillars. Beets can also get infected by different bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Healthy plants grown in rich soil can ward off these pests or recover better should they become infected. From year to year, if you've had a problem with beet diseases, plant your beets in a different spot. Helpful photos of the effect of different diseases on beets and beet pests can be found in this article from Pennsylvania State University's PlantVillage website.
You can harvest beets at any time of the growing process, depending what you are growing them for.
For microgreens, harvest as soon as the sprouts emerge, or when the sprout's leaves are the desired size.
Beet roots are usually close to the surface of the soil and you can get an idea of the size of the root. If you want smaller beets, harvest them before they completely mature based on your estimate of the beet size. Harvest the roots when younger and smaller for more tender and milder beet greens.
To harvest, simply grasp the greens and pull. The beet should pop out of the ground easily.
Beets left in the ground too long can get woody and fibrous. Leaving a smaller beet in the ground hoping that it will get bigger will not necessarily work. When beets are coming to maturity, they seem to pop out of the ground themselves - you can see much of the beet root above the soil. It is definitely time to harvest.
* - Till and Trowel has no financial affiliation with these organizations - we just like their seeds!