The Common Beet, sometimes termed the Red Beet, is a half-hardy biennial plant and is cultivated for its large, succulent, sweet, and tender roots. They attain their full size during the first year, but will not survive the winter in the open ground. The seed is produced the second year; after the ripening of which, the plant perishes.
Beets are popular in the home garden because they are relatively easy to grow and practically the whole plant can be eaten. Beets can be grown for their root qualities which include different shapes and sizes as well as red, yellow or white colors. The tops or greens, when young, are excellent in salads and when the plant is older, can be cooked. The greens are even more nutritious than the roots.
Soil and Fertilizers. — Beets prefer loose, well-drained soils but will tolerate a wide range. Remove stones and debris since this will hinder growth. In high clay soils, add organic matter to improve soil structure and to help avoid crusting after rainfall. Beets also make an excellent raised bed crop since soils are generally less compacted and there is less foot traffic. Beets are also sensitive to soil acidity. A low soil pH results in stunted growth. They prefer a pH of 6.2 to 6.8 and will tolerate 6.0 to 7.5.
Fertilizers and lime are best applied using soil test results as a guide. Arrangements for soil testing can be made through your local Extension office. A fertilizer with the analysis of 5-10-10 can be applied at the time of seeding and again when the plants are about three inches high.
Propagation and Culture. — Plant the seeds in a well-prepared seedbed as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and in rows 12 to 18 inches or more apart depending on the method of cultivation.
Space the seeds, which are actually fruits containing several seeds, one inch apart in the rows. When the seedlings are one to two inches tall, thin the seedlings to about one plant per inch. As they grow, thin to about three to four inches between plants.
Succession planting can be done at three week intervals throughout the season. Avoid seeding during daytime temperatures of 80 degrees F, wait until it is cooler. Most varieties will mature within 55 to 70 days and can be planted until late summer.
After plants are well established, the application of mulch will conserve soil moisture, prevent soil compaction and help suppress weed growth. Any mechanical cultivation should be very shallow in order to avoid damage to the beet roots.
In order to obtain the highest quality, beets must make continuous growth. Soil moisture and plant nutrient element supply must be adequately maintained to prevent checking of the growth. Supplemental watering may be necessary during dry spells.
Weeds, insects and diseases must be controlled in the planting. Principal insect and disease problems of beets are flea beetles, leaf miners, aphids and Cercospora leaf spot. Regular inspection of the crop can help deter a major pest infestation. Check with your local Extension office for current control recommendations when you notice a problem.
Harvesting. — Beets can be harvested at any time in their growth cycle. Greens are best when four to six inches tall. Beet roots are generally most tender after growing for 40 to 50 days. The best size is between 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. As beets get larger, they tend to become more fibrous. When harvested, leave at least one inch of foliage on the root to avoid bleeding during cooking.
Beets are suited to long-term storage if kept at temperatures near freezing and with high humidity to prevent wilting. If harvested before receiving injury from cold, and properly packed, they will retain, in a good degree, their freshness and sweetness until the new crop is suitable for use.
Varieties.–Choice of cultivar depends on your tastes. Excellent varieties for the home gardens include Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red and Little Ball for red beets. More recent introductions include Pacemaker III, Red Ace Hybrid, Warrior and Avenger. Burpee Golden and Albino White are alternatives for a different color of beets. Below are some varieties and their characteristics.
- Burpee Golden – Round type with a unique yellow-orange color.
- Pacemaker III – Uniform, smooth a tender round beet, cercospera leaf spot tolerant, high quality tops.
- Red Ace hybrid – Exceptional weather tolerance, cercospera leaf spot tolerant, early maturity.
- Little Mini Ball – Sliver-dollar sized round roots.
- Detroit Dark Red – Excellent canning, pickling quality, tender & sweet, good boiling greens.
Uses.–The roots are the parts generally used, and are boiled, stewed, and also eaten cold, sliced in vinegar and oil. They can be used in mixed salads, and are used for garnishing. The leaves can also be eaten and sometimes are substituted for Swiss chard. The deeper colored the Beet the more they are appreciated. Some, however, prefer them of a bright-red color; but all should be of fine quality in fiber, solid, and of uniform color.