How to Grow Beetscomments (8) August 5th, 2008
I suppose beets might be appreciated more if they hung from trees like apples instead of spending their lives in the soil. Glistening in the sunlight in colors ranging from magenta to gold to white, they might then be described as sweet and bright and airy. As it is, dwelling underground, and showing up in many of our memories as canned red balls or corrugated slices from a jar, they’ve developed an undeserved reputation as earthy and dull. Perhaps it’s time to bring the many virtues of beets into the light.
• Prepare a seed bed by working in compost and fertilizer. Smooth with a rake, then make shallow indentations 3 in. apart.
• Plant beets every three or four weeks from spring into fall, sowing two seeds per space because beets have a relatively low germination rate.
• Beet seeds are conglomerates—clusters of multiple seeds. After they germinate, pull out all but one seedling.
• For fresh eating, harvest when roots are about 2 in. across. A light harvest of leaves during growth won’t diminish the size of the roots.
Cultural clues from the past
Whenever I’m getting to know a vegetable, I like to find out where it came from. Even the most civilized of vegetables, such as corn, carries with it genetic reminders of its wild, adaptive past. Beets are no exception. Wild beets, leafy and without large roots, can be found growing on the seacoasts of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. In that environment they have adapted to regular moisture, moderate temperatures, loose soils, and salt. They tolerate a rather high pH. Some of the best beets I’ve grown were on the west side of California’s Central Valley where the sandy soil’s pH hovered around 8. That area also produces large quantities of sugar beets. Italian sugar beets thrive in the drained salt marshes of the Adriatic Sea. If you give beets what their ancestors needed, you have a good chance of success.
Red balls and beyond
I grow beets of many shapes and colors, and I harvest them at various stages, depending on how they’ll be used.
Beets for fresh eating. I grow a few standard red beets, but I prefer to grow three varieties that don’t bleed when you cut them. These are useful when you want beet flavor and texture without turning everything red. One is an ivory-colored variety called ‘Albina Verduna’. It’s very sweet, almost like a sugar beet. The ‘Golden’ beet has a flavor less sweet but fuller than ‘Albina Verduna’. ‘Golden’ cooks up a deep orange-red.
|It's easy to see why 'Chioggia' (pronounced key-O-jha) is sometimes called the target beet. Neither 'Chioggia' nor the golden beet, lower left, bleeds its color during cooking.|
I sow a succession of each of these varieties every few weeks beginning in the spring and ending in the fall, making sure they are adequately watered during the warm days of summer. You can harvest these beets at any size. I usually harvest about 60 days after seeding by poking around in the soil and pulling those that are 2 in. or larger in diameter.
Beets for keeping into winter. Although each of the varieties above seems to make it through our California winters without a problem, none of them grows very large. I often sow a few overwintering beets in midsummer and let them size up during the fall. When cold weather comes, they can be left in the ground, heavily mulched, or lifted. With the leaves twisted off, they’ll keep a long time in the refrigerator. My favorite is a dual-purpose beet called ‘Lutz Green Leaf’ or ‘Winterkeeper’. Its root is deep red, 4 in. to 5 in. across, and keeps very well.
|All beets have edible leaves, but 'Lutz Green Leaf' and "Bull's Blood' (the dark ones in the basket) are grown primarily for their foliage.|
It’s not hard to grow good beets
|Sources for beet seeds
The following catalogs list a wide selection of beets.
The Cooks Garden
PO Box C5030
Warminster, PA 18974
5723 Trowbridge Way
San Jose, Ca 95138
Pinetree Garden Seeds
PO Box 300
New Gloucester, ME 04260
Territorial Seed Company
PO Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424
I use wide beds to make the best use of limited space. I work the bed, add plenty of well-composted horse manure to loosen the soil and about 3 lb. of seed meal (7% N) per 100 sq. ft., and then rake the bed smooth. Sometimes, if I’m in a desperate hurry or my back is tired, I broadcast the seed, chop it in with a rake, and sift compost over the surface. Thinning becomes a bit more tedious this way, and the spacing is uneven, but it is quick. I prefer, however, to dent the surface with my fingers every 3 in. in an offset pattern. I drop a couple of seeds in each shallow depression (more for ‘Golden’ beets, which don’t germinate well), cover them, and sift compost over all. Then I water the bed with a fan spray and keep it moist until the seedlings emerge, in about a week.
|Beet seeds look weird (above) because they're actually several seeds fused together. That's why thinning (above right) isn't optional.||
For nicely shaped roots, you must pull out all but one plant from every "seed," holding onto the beet you're leaving behind to keep it from being dislodged, too.
|By the time the roots have reached 2 in. across, the beets have developed plenty of flavor and sweetness and are ready to harvest. At right, the author is gathering a white Italian variety called 'Albina Verduna'.|
I find a great deal of pleasure in growing beets. I like the rugged texture of the seeds; they look battered and scarred and toughened by their stormy coastal origins. I like the prepared seed bed smooth, evenly dimpled, and ready for seeding. Above all I like to harvest a few beets of each variety and take them to the faucet to wash off the soil. As the colors appear under the running water, they look like jewels to me and at that moment, with my hands full of nothing more than humble beets, I feel rich beyond measure.
by Joe Queirolo
from issue #10
posted in: beets