By Nancy Pierson Farris – Have you ever tried growing beets? Beets can be planted early, harvested at any stage of their growth cycle, and do not require back-cramping labor at harvest time. According to USDA, “Beets are a valuable and satisfying addition to the garden because they offer a prolonged harvest season, long storage life, and a large amount of food in a small amount of space.” A half-cup of beets contains as much iron as an egg (but no cholesterol), and four times as much potassium as a banana. Beet greens deliver significant amounts of vitamins A and C, along with some B1, B2, and calcium. Growing beets can be done in just about any planting zone, and can be grown from the spring all the way into fall and even the early part of winter.
With all these benefits to growing beets, I’ve been an ardent beet farmer for many years. Beets have always been on my favorite garden vegetables list. Since I live in the South, I am able to work my soil early, and I do plant early to get a crop before summer days get hot enough to boil the color off the carp in the fishpond. Golden beets may perform better in cool weather, but red beets tolerate heat better. Red Ace matures in about seven weeks, but I prefer varieties such as Lutz/Long Season or Egyptian, which take 10 weeks to mature but make larger roots. Last year I planted Kestrel (Burpee) and found them productive and tasty, with greens that stood well into early summer. When harvested, the beet roots canned well.
Growing Beets: Preparing the Soil
Beets have a long taproot, therefore I work the soil deeply. I use a trench composting method which my grandfather taught me when I was a child, living along the Chenango River in New York State. Grampa started his garden rows in fall, by digging out a short trench, two shovelfuls deep. In this trench, he dumped kitchen garbage. He covered that with two shovelfuls of soil he scooped from the next section of the trench. Day after day, he continued—sometimes removing snow from the area so he could chop frozen dirt from the next section of his ongoing trench. When he came to the end of the garden row, he started another trench parallel to the first. When the snow melted in spring, Grampa’s garden had long mounds of dirt with garbage rotting beneath. I use this method in order to get compost deep in the ground beneath rows I plan to use for growing beets, winter squash varieties, and other root crops. This insures friable soil at least two feet down; the rotting compost also warms soil for early spring plantings, then feeds the roots as the crop grows.
Growing Beets: When to Plant?
Since beets will tolerate cold, even light frost, I plant very early when I’m growing beets. (Anything I can plant before March 1st may get some rain and make some growth before drought begins.) My garden rows are about 50 feet long, so I place about a half-ounce of beet seed per row. Under ideal conditions, that row will yield about two dozen pints of beets for canning, besides whatever we eat straight from the garden. If drought comes early, we must harvest before the roots are fully mature, because we can’t irrigate everything. And because the beets can withstand a light frost, it’s possible for me to plant a second crop and continue growing beets in my fall garden, as well.
Each beet seed is actually a tiny fruit and contains two or more seeds; therefore I carefully space seeds about two inches apart in the row and cover with about a half-inch of soil. I keep soil moist for a few days until seeds start to sprout.
Beet seedlings have slender leaves, almost like grass, but the red stems make them easy to identify. When I’m growing beets in the spring, I try to get spring weeds out immediately so they don’t compete for moisture and nutrients. In a couple of weeks, I start removing excess beet plants and these go into salads at the dinner table. When marble sized roots form, I continue to thin plants, cooking roots with the greens for a delightful side dish. As beets grow, greens tend to lose quality, since nutrients are going into maturing roots.
Another advantage of growing beets is that beets are relatively free from pest problems. Flea beetles may nibble pinholes in the leaves. Aphids may also feed on beet greens. I find, if I don’t get trigger happy with poisons, beneficial insects soon arrive to clean up the problems. Ladybugs set up community feeding stations where they dine on aphids. Since we feed thrashers and cardinals through the lean winter months, they return the favor by patrolling the garden. Often, when I check my garden early in the morning, I see evidence of insect damage, but the wrens have already been there to get breakfast for their hatchlings.
A few years ago, beet growers became concerned with the declining sugar content of their product. Researchers found that the problem originated from the soil: too much chemical fertilizer and too little organic matter. Root rot results from a lack of boron—beets have a high need for boron, and chemical fertilizer seldom contains it. If I use fertilizer, I buy a type that provides trace elements. (My soil is also deficient in zinc, due to pecan trees having grown on the property for many decades.)
When planting beets in the fall, it is possible to succession-plant beets and also to grow a good crop of beets. For this, a quick-maturing variety should be used. Fall-grown beets will stand light frost, but should be harvested before a hard freeze. Stored in a cool, dry area, these beets will keep for months.
I harvest my spring-planted beets in late May or early June, before summer blasts our garden with high heat and humidity which encourages insects and fosters fungal disease. If rains don’t come, we must choose which areas of the garden we can continue to irrigate and thus may harvest beets earlier.
I prefer to can beets; they look lovely on the shelves, and I save freezer space for other things. I cook the beet roots for about 10 minutes to soften them. Then I cool them so I can peel, slice or cut into chunks, and pack into jars. I add 1/4 teaspoon salt per pint and boiling water to the fill line. Process pints of beets for 30 minutes at 10 pounds pressure. Since beets are a low-acid vegetable, I would consider water-bath processing unsafe.
Here is a recipe my family enjoys:
Drain liquid from a jar of beets into a saucepan.
• 1 tablespoon cornstarch
• 2 tablespoons vinegar (I drain it from pickles)
• 1 tablespoon honey
Cook until liquid is thickened and clear. Add beets and heat through.
Originally published in the March/April 2012 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.