How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Beets
Beets—which are also known by their less popular name, beetroot—are the edible taproot portion of the beet plant, says Natasha Nicholes, the executive director of We Sow We Grow. "They just happen to grow large and round or oblong instead of straight down like other plants (I'm looking at you, carrots and parsnips)," she says. According to Nicholes, these veggies are high in potassium, vitamin A, iron, antioxidants, and other nutrients, while also being low in calories. To enjoy this healthful harvest, here's what you need to do.
How to Plant Beets
According to Nicholes, beets aren't fussy growers. "In order to thrive, they need to be directly sown into well-drained loamy (a combination of sand, clay, and silt) soil—and need eight inches or more of soil depth in order to set their roots properly," she says, but also notes that they don't transplant well. "Based on your zone's last frost date, beets should be sown two to four weeks before that last frost, when the soil temperature is at least 45 degrees—60 to 85 degrees is preferable, however, for an early summer crop." When you are ready to get your beets in the ground, plant three to four seeds four to six inches apart, and thin to one seedling per mound after the greens have grown two inches or more, notes Nicholes.
If you want to squeeze in a second round of fresh beets during the warm-weather season, you can plant another crop six to eight weeks before your first fall frost for an end-of-summer or early fall harvest. "Growing beets during hot temperature periods isn't ideal, as root vegetables thrive and become sweeter with cooler weather," she says, adding that those raised in milder climates should only plant them through the fall and winter.
Beets' Sunlight, Water, and Fertilizer Requirements
Beets need a lot of potassium, which is why Nicholes says to use plenty of potassium-rich ingredients if you're mixing your own growing medium. "You can ask anyone at a garden center [for a recommendation] or add compost, wood ash (potash), or potassium-heavy fertilizers, like greensand," she says. "Make sure to mix fertilizer into the soil before sowing so that it's properly incorporated and has time to take effect." If you're unsure of your soil mixture, you should test it before getting started—something Nicholes says can be done at many university extension offices. These crops do well in full sun to partial shade, and are happiest in well-draining soil.
How to Harvest and Store Beets
You'll want to harvest your beets before the heat of summer sets in; pull them when roots are anywhere between one to four inches in diameter, depending on variety (always read your seed packets). "Letting beets get too large isn't recommended," Nicholes explains. "The younger and smaller, the more tender. Beet greens are even more nutritious than the roots—this is a crop that you can eat in its entirety." If you have a bumper beet crop and want to store some for later in the season, she suggests separating the root from the greens. "You can wrap the greens in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator for up to a week," she says. "The roots should be unwashed and stored in a plastic bag with all the air removed. They can last almost a month following these instructions." Only wash beets when you are ready to eat them.
And if you're lucky enough to have a root cellar—or even a 10-gallon bucket—Nicholes says you can store beets in moist, but not soggy sand, sawdust, or peat moss. "Bury the roots (sans the greens, which speed up rot) without them touching," she says; placing them too close to one another prevents proper air circulation. "Make sure to check the beets every week to remove any roots with signs of rot. If you do this properly, beets can stay this way for up to three months."