As summer winds to a close, the weather starts to cool off and the gardener’s thoughts shift toward other things.
The past month or so has been all about staying on top of weeds, keeping pests away, drenching your garden through droughty periods, and harvesting some of your well-earned veggie bounty.
But as any seasoned vegetable gardener knows, summer crops that move out of the soil and into the kitchen call for some new additions in your growing space.
Before you know it, you’re weeding, prepping, and amending fresh beds to make room for yet another round of crops.
There’s one vibrant veggie that always gets me stoked to plant in the cool seasons of spring or early fall: the beet!
A Beet of Background
Beets are so versatile. A root veggie that’s notorious for that earthy taste you either love or hate, they also provide leafy spinach-like greens.
Did you know that beets are actually close cousins to spinach, quinoa, and amaranth (as well as the more obscure orach – have you tried it before)?
All of these are traditionally called goosefoot vegetables, part of the chenopodiaceae family (or “goosefoot family” in Latin), also known as amaranthaceae.
Here’s a surprise fun fact for you: chard – another goosefoot and lookalike to beet greens, though more colorful – is in fact a variety of beet.
Chard is grown for its aboveground edible greens rather than its root. Chard roots do become bulbous and they are edible, but they’re less sweet and markedly tougher.
Both beets and chard belong to the same species, Beta vulgaris, and they do look strikingly similar.
Beets go by the moniker B. vulgaris subspecies vulgaris, while chard is just another variety of beet selected and bred for its leaves rather than its roots: B. vulgaris subspecies vulgaris cultivar cicla (flavescens, in the case of Swiss chard).
Try saying that five times fast!
Back before beets and chard officially parted ways however, they had one shared ancestor: the sea beet, scientific name B. vulgaris maritima, and a denizen of the Mediterranean coast.
Beets have a rich and colorful history. Historical records show that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and even Babylonians bred this taper-like wild root into the bulbous, delicious produce varieties that we have today.
Stepping to the Beet
Think you know which variety of beet you want to try?
Or maybe – like me – you want to try all of them, and grow a rainbow of these colorful gems in your garden!
Regardless of your choice, each variety needs the same basic conditions to grow – though forage or sugar beets will require a little more patience, thanks to their slower maturation rates.
Otherwise, the same growing approach applies to beets of any size, color, or shape.
Rules of (Green) Thumb
1. Where Should They Go?
Choose an open, well-draining sunny position. Some late afternoon or early morning shade is okay.
2. What Soil Do They Need?
Don’t skimp on the phosphorus or potassium either – these plant nutrients are vital for healthy root growth. In fact, beets are known to be lovers of potassium!
3. What About pH?
Aim for levels between 6.5 and 7.5, somewhere snugly in the middle between basic and acidic.
4. And Temperature?
Beets are cool weather crops, basking and flourishing especially in the mild temps around 60°F – typical of spring or fall.
Since they can tolerate light frosts (28-32°F), they may overwinter in areas that lack harsh winters, or thrive in a cold frame.
In zones with harsh winters, avoid planting them outdoors too early in the spring or too late in the fall.
5. Any Important Tips?
These veggies, along with carrots, spinach, and parsnips, do best when direct seeded (i.e. planted straight into a garden space).
In some cases, transplanting has been known to work. It works best if containers are deep and if seedlings are small – we’ll get to some transplanting tips later in this article.
Seeding and Starting
Ready to get started?
If you’re growing the average beet variety, your harvest is less than two months away after seeding your little guys!
The first thing to take stock of are the beet’s fascinating (and odd) looking seeds.
Somewhat big, chunky, and almost cereal-like (they remind me of Grape Nuts – then I get hungry!), each seed is actually a fruit cluster of encased multiple seeds, usually about two or three.
So even if you feel you are planting just a few beet seeds in total, you’re really sowing a twice or three times as many. Pretty awesome, huh?
The tough seed casing, while protective, can hinder germination in some ways. And this is a common complaint among gardeners when planting these roots.
I’ve had experiences in this vein myself: laying down a ton of beet seed and expecting a huge turnout, only to be disappointed when just a couple little sprouts push their way up.
Luckily, gardeners have a couple tricks for this sort of thing to help you get the most plentiful crop, and an optimal germination rate.
This is my preferred method.
Simply run your seeds under warm tap water in a colander or strainer until sufficiently wet, about half an hour to an hour before planting.
As an alternative, you can soak them in a jar or bowl of warm water for half an hour to an hour prior to seeding them instead.
I have actually soaked beet seeds in a jar of room temperature water overnight for full 12 hours, and then seeded them in the morning.
Compared to times when I haven’t soaked them at all, germination is admittedly much, much better – so give it try!
Scarification is a botanical term for assisting with the opening of a casing or shell around a seed, so it may germinate more easily. Technically, soaking your seeds could be called scarification, too.
However, there are other ways to scarify seeds. The most common is by actually rubbing or grating the surface.
Scratching them against a piece of sandpaper works to help them open up before planting.
I’m no champion of this method (because it takes a bit more time and effort – call me lazy), but give it a try if it’s up your alley.
After your preferred scarifying method (or after you’ve elected to skip it, if you’re feeling confident), it’s time to do the deed and get your seeds in the ground.
Beets love the cool weather of spring and fall, but that doesn’t mean you should just toss them haphazardly onto the still-cold ground very early in spring (or, similarly, push your luck by planting them too late in fall).
In the spring, wait for average soil temps above 45°F. Anything colder than that causes germination to happen very slowly, or to be very spotty.
If you elect to take a chance and seed beets indoors in containers for transplant, you can warm the soil with a heating pad or another method, if you like.
I have done this successfully before, but this may be a method reserved for more experienced gardeners. Take note that the ideal temperature for beet germination is 61°F.
In the fall, don’t plant seeds outdoors less than about 50 days before the first expected hard frost in your growing zone (in other words, 8 weeks to 1.5 months beforehand).
You don’t want to plant them less than the total maturation period within the first hard frost dates, or you’ll risk a crop of roots that’s deflated and mushy.
After working your soil, amending it with compost or green manure, and prepping the ideal bed for your future beets, place one or two seeds together into holes or ruts about 1/2 to 1/4 inches in depth, and at least 1 inch away from each seed planting.
If row planting, keep each row about 4 inches away from the other. With biointensive or square foot gardening methods, follow the suggested directions or patterns for planting beets, and just make sure to keep that 1-inch distance.
Water thoroughly after planting so the topsoil has a good soak, but don’t go overboard and continue until the ground is waterlogged.
Germination should happen in 5 to 10 days, at optimal temperatures, if soil is always kept moist but drained. In colder conditions, seeds may emerge later – somewhere in the 15- to 25-day range.
Transplanting (If You’re Up for It)
If you’re a weird, brave gardening soul like me who has some bizarre methods up her sleeve, you might want to give transplanting your beets from seed a try.
I know, I know – I will probably receive a good harping from some old-timey gardeners out there (and believe me, I already have). But I have actually experienced noticeable success from this.
Similarly, some of my friends who are young community growers and farmers have also had transplanting success using these methods, even with some of the beet’s close relatives like spinach and chard (all of which, along with beets, are famous for hating it when you transplant them – tending to dither, wither, and die).
Every gardener knows that starting from seed indoors in containers for later transplant adds a little extra legwork, but it can be well worth the effort with certain other vegetables.
So, what’s the situation with beets?
To be honest, I have done a side-by-side comparison of direct seeding and transplanting beets, and found that transplanting (correctly) leads to a higher success rate of strong seedlings.
When planting straight into the ground, there is always the risk that some won’t come up – and when that happens, you wind up with a patchy, scraggly-looking bed that doesn’t look quite as bountiful as you would have hoped.
But this is not the case with transplants. Each seed tray container offers at most 6 potential seedlings, at least a few of which will make it to maturation.
What’s more, you’ll choose to plant only successful seedlings from seeds you KNOW have germinated well, ridding yourself of any chance of having that patchy, only partially bountiful beet bed. Every single space only takes an already robust seedling, leaving no holes or partial beds that look incomplete and bare.
Plus, I have observed that protecting small seedlings indoors greatly increases their ability to withstand common beet-loving pests that especially savor the chance to get at your little guys early, including rabbits, deer, and flea beetles.
You can give them a little jumpstart this way with some extra growth indoors – and voila, you have a thick, lush bed of beets!
Of course, this all depends on transplanting them and seeding them correctly.
Here’s my method:
1. Plant in Seed Trays
Seed your beets in a seed tray with individual containers, each container having around 3 inches of soil depth.
It may surprise you that beets have one of the deepest root systems of all veggies out there (yes, deeper than carrots or parsnips). Giving them that extra leg room in their youth can really help them to get ahead.
2. When Mature, Transplant Intact
Before seedlings have produced their first true leaves beyond their cotyledons (the botanical term for their first non-true leaves, which will look long and slender comparatively), get them ready for transplant.
Using a very long flat tool (like a popsicle stick or something similar), push the entire beet seedling out of its container whole, by sliding the stick lengthwise into the soil at the container’s edge.
Without breaking up the container-shaped soil around its roots at all, the entire seedling should just slide right out with the help of this tool. Watering before removing them from the container helps.
If you’re having difficulty, slide the popsicle stick into the container around all sides to help loosen it even further.
3. Pop in Your Seedling
Without taking any soil from around their roots, and keeping the soil and root ball intact, pop the beet seedlings into 3-inch holes that you have prepared for them in their future space outside.
Cover the roots and attached soil completely, leaving their foliage above the ground. Feel free to gather soil up close around your seedlings.
Water deeply and thoroughly, and you’re done!
Mature Plant Care
Getting beets seeded and planted is the hardest part of the process, and the remainder of their life cycle is an easy ride for most gardeners.
As you watch them grow and mature, you’ll notice their true leaves coming on – small at first, then getting bigger over the weeks to come.
You will begin to notice root growth at the very base of the leaf stalks, right above the dirt, about 3-4 weeks after seeding.
Be patient – especially with golden varieties. It takes some time before you will finally see a tiny nub forming at the base of the plant. But with patience, this will eventually become a delicious beetroot!
Weeds are the greatest concern when beets are at their smallest.
At 1 to 4 inches tall, most native plants (even if they are tiny themselves) can rapidly overtake, overshadow, and sap nutrients from your little guys, crowding them out and injuring their growth potential.
At this height, use a very small hand hoe around them and as closely as possible to keep the bed weed free.
In the bigger spaces between plantings, such as between rows, you can use a larger hoe to get rid of unwelcome weeds. Avoid larger tool for delicate work in the immediate vicinity of your precious plants to avoid accidentally damaging or pulling them up.
Once they are about 5 to 6 inches tall, I give them one last close hand-weeding at their bases, and weed the rest of the bed with a larger hoe. Then I leave them alone for the next few weeks.
If you have planted a close-spaced crop of beets that hasn’t been thinned yet, the foliage will grow large enough to shade out and deter weeds from outcompeting them.
As the beets enlarge with time, just a few weeds may grow to tower above your plants. Every couple of weeks, I just go through and pull each of these out.
With a weeding cycle like this, I have found that my beets do just fine!
Lots of Water (Or Not)?
One of the nicest things about beets is that don’t need to water them much.
Some may offer a counterpoint to this, describing their confidence and experience in watering their beets everyday, and I won’t argue with that. Whatever helps the gardener sleep soundly.
But many experienced gardeners will tell you that excessive watering of your beets will actually take away from full root development. Abundant water will cause the plant to redirect energies to its leaves – which isn’t a bad thing either, since beet greens are definitely delicious.
But if you want those big, hefty bulbs, go easy on the water. And regardless of whether you are aiming for more greens or roots, don’t forget that beets prefer well-drained sites.
Definitely avoid soaking your soil every day to keep it moist, as this can backfire and lead to issues of rot and disease, both in the bulb and the greens.
How do I personally water my own crop? If it rains at least an inch or two once a week, I leave them be and don’t pay them any mind.
When it gets hot and droughty, that’s when I do water them every day (sometimes multiple times).
Regardless of whether the water comes from the sky or my spray nozzle – or if it’s wet or dry season – I always allow the soil to completely dry out before their next watering.
Are your beets showing cracked roots? This is a sign of a lack of moisture, but it can’t be reversed once you notice it. The best you can do it take this as a lesson, and make sure you give your next crop even more moisture.
Beeting the Bugs
The round, plump, and jovial beet tends to be a more robust veggie than some on average – but it does have some adversaries.
Whether it’s pests or illness, you’ll want to watch out for and protect your crop against these top threats to your patch.
If the leaves of your plants (especially when young) are covered with numerous tiny, almost pinprick-sized holes, this could be flea beetle damage. This may come with some yellowing of foliage as well.
Diatomaceous earth works to kill this infestation. Just sprinkle it on top of your plants.
While this little guy tends to be more attracted to brassicas (like kale, cabbage and broccoli), you may find them on your beets. An adorable green caterpillar, these chew away holes in leaves that are larger than ones formed by flea beetles.
Floating row covers during the day can protect plants from butterflies that lay their eggs, and thus prevent the next generation of destructive cabbage loopers from munching away at your crop.
Blister beetles are one of the worst beet pests I have ever beheld. They’ll go after your chard, too.
These grey and black nickel-sized beetles (though they can come in other colors, too) will eat very large holes in your plants, sometimes only leaving only the veins behind. They reproduce rapidly and are very destructive.
Your best bet is removing them directly by hand and killing them, but wear gloves – these insects release a chemical that creates blisters on the skin. Using a pyrethrum spray (a naturally sourced spray made from chrysanthemum) helps deter them from returning.
If you notice chunks of leaf and stem missing from your plants, it could be grasshoppers.
Setting a sugar trap nearby will draw them away and kill them. You can do this by burying a quart jar in the soil and mixing in sugar, honey, or molasses with water, and leaving the mouth open and uncovered.
Or, you can try a grasshopper specific repellent product like NOLO Bait, available on Amazon. This 100% organic insecticide is made of wheat bran coated with Nosema locustae spores.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that rabbits love – more than carrots, lettuce, or any other veggie – beet greens. They’ll also target spinach and chard too before anything else, finding goosefoots especially tasty treats.
Putting a fence around your garden is a good first resort, but if the bunny-raiding becomes a real problem, check out our full article on the best rabbit repelling tips and tricks.
In more bad news, deer tend to find beets (as well as chard and spinach) irresistible, bee-lining straight for them in any case. While they truly are beautiful creatures to behold, it’s too bad that you can’t trick them into enjoying the sight of them somewhere far away from your garden.
Fencing and deer-repellent sprays will be your best bet to keep them away. For more tips to keep deer away, check out our full guide on deer-proofing your garden.
Damping off comes from a soil-borne fungus that thrives in soil under damp, humid conditions. If you experience sudden seedling death not too long after planting – and your plants take on a blackened, soppy, almost rotted appearance – you can bet that it’s damping off.
To avoid it, refrain from overwatering your seedlings. Let the seed-starting mix dry out completely before watering it again, and improve the drainage of your containers.
Curly Top Virus
Certain insects can spread this virus through your crop, most notably the leafhopper, a miniscule little cute grasshopper-like bug.
Veins of leaves will darken, the plant will have stunted growth, and leaf edges will also curl upward in the presence of this virus. There’s no way to remedy plants that experience this, so the most you can hope for is removing your plants (don’t compost them) and plant anew.
Cercospora Leaf Spot
This is probably the most common illness I’ve seen with beets, I would almost say synonymous with the plant itself.
Leaf spot is fungal, and forms dark, patchy spots all over the leaves that can be a brassy-purple color. In some cases, the color can engulf the entire leaf. The warmer, wetter, and rainier it gets, the more likely that this fungus will show up.
Try removing and tossing out (not composting) affected leaves without touching the good leaves. Stay on top of thinning your beets if they are planted closely together, as crowded plants increase the chances of spreading.
Water in the middle of the day if hot and humid, and use of anti-fungal sprays can be permitted – organic preferred.
Here’s to hoping that watering, weeding, and pest-battling yields you successful, happy, and mature plants – all to get you to that last and best step: harvesting!
With most beets, you will want to harvest the whole plant right around the maturity date (depending on the variety – see above), which will give you the biggest size of beetroot you’ll get from the plant.
Leave it in the ground, and the root could get larger, it’s true; but the larger most beets get, the woodier and less edible they could get, too.
Really, you can harvest beetroots any time before their maturity date if you are satisfied with the root size.
If you planted beets close together, you can also thin out every other beet while they’re still small, leaving the rest in your bed to get bigger.
Small beets are called baby beets, and are quite delicious in spite of their size. They’re a culinary favorite, too.
Plant plenty of beets, and you can harvest tons of baby beets AND full-sized beetroots over the season!
If you’re impatient for a spring or fall salad or two, you can harvest some small greens here and there, even before the first little nubby showings of a beetroot.
Wash these leaves and toss them in with your greens and lettuce, and enjoy. Or, you can harvest larger, more mature leaves and cook them much like spinach.
Of course, just make sure not to harvest all of a beet’s leaves – they’ll need those to survive and grow those little roots into larger, tastier bulbs! Always leave at least 3 fully grown leaves attached, and avoid removing any of the smaller leaves at its very center.
Even as the roots swell bigger and bigger, you can continue harvesting greens all throughout the season, as long as they’re there.
Once you’ve pulled up your farming fare from your garden, you’ll probably want to store it for the long haul and keep it fresh for as long as possible.
If you have just pulled whole plants out of your garden and know you’re going to be eating them up soon, you can leave the whole plants – roots, greens, and all intact – in a closed or sealed-up plastic bag in your fridge.
Roots, of course, last much longer than beet greens. Greens are likely to wither and become inedible after two weeks, so use them quick.
You can sever greens from your beetroots as you use them, and save your roots for later by keeping them in their plastic bag in storage. Beetroots will store well in a dry area in a root cellar as well, preferably in a food-grade wax cardboard box.
In the fridge, however, make sure to keep bags airtight to prevent moisture from seeping into the bag, a factor that could lead to beetroots spoiling quicker.
Sometimes, the outside skin of beets will lose their supple quality over time, feeling a bit softer and mushier to the touch (kind of like a ripe avocado, though firmer). While this may deter some from eating these in this state, cooking them has not been a problem for me, as the inner texture tends to remain crisp regardless, while the outer crisps up with cooking.
In my experience, greens stay good up to two weeks, and the same average timespan is recommended for the root in a fridge.
However, if you do long-term storage (such as in a dry root cellar) for the winter, your roots could last upwards of 2 months.
Cooking and Eating
Just the mere mention of the word beet is enough to spook some people straight out of the kitchen.
It’s true – the plant’s earthy, hearty flavor is irresistible to some, repugnant to others.
If you’ve only ever enjoyed store beets from a can (if you could even call it that), then you don’t know the vegetable in its full glory – especially when grown and harvested straight from the garden. This can be partially to blame for why some people despise it: because they haven’t gotten to know it well enough.
On that note, this red root does not have to be devoured in its classic canned, pickled form in salads. You can also boil, roast, bake, steam, sautee, or fry it after slicing it up.
One of my favorites? Large slices of beets straight on the grill! Slice them extra thin, and you could easily turn them into chips (this works in an oven, too).
They also make a colorful addition to soups, most notably borscht, a chilled soup made from the fermented juice.
Want to keep things simple and traditional? Then just slice them up raw and enjoy them on a salad, as most who like the canned kind are wont to do – though if you try your very own homegrown beets raw, you’ll taste the difference (and probably never go for those canned ones again!).
Trying different ways to enjoy beets in the many ways you can is not the only way to warm up to them (I’m looking at you, beet haters). Making beets taste amazing also depends a lot on what you cook them with.
- Goat cheese
- Parmesan cheese
- Roquefort cheese
- Sour cream
Herbs and Spices:
- Dijon mustard
- Walnut oil
- Balsamic vinegar
Additional Recipe Ideas
If that’s not enough to entice your taste buds and get your mouth watering, try out some of these recipe ideas:
Nutritious and Delicious Wraps
Kids and adults alike will love these nutritious wraps, perfect for a quick lunch.
Spiralizing is a great way to utilize your harvest!
Creamy Red Roasted Beet Soup
Made with roasted roots for a deep, rich flavor you can easily put this soup on the table at a moment’s notice if you already have roasted beets on hand.
A Tasty Dessert Option!
Still have room for dessert? Perfect for any celebration, your guests are going to be tickled, well… pink!
When they see this gorgeous chocolate cake with its colorful cream cheese frosting, you’re sure to get compliments – it’s totally Instagram–worthy.
And they won’t believe you when you tell them what the secret ingredient is, in both the cake and the frosting.
Beets for Beet-ific Health
Long before beets were ever considered a food, they were once used as an herbal medicine. Surprising, right?
In Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa where they originate – and long before they were first consumed as a culinary food – beets’ ancient ancestors were harvested for the medicine cabinet rather than the table.
Fascinatingly, this root crop was often employed as an alterative: a blood cleanser and detoxifier, particularly for treating issues of the liver, heart, and digestive system. Today, similar uses ring true.
The vegetable is rich in nitrates, little-known nutrients that improve the function of the heart and regulate blood pressure – particularly high blood pressure. This makes it a helpful preventative against heart disease, if consumed regularly.
Additionally, the betalains that give the root its red or golden color (but which also impart that earthy taste) are responsible for some of their most potent health benefits – including anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and even cancer-preventing properties.
It would seem that modern studies tie in directly with some of the beet’ folk uses. Alterative, detoxifying remedies were once used to treat cancers long before conventional medicine arose.
Plus, with the added effects of nitrates, the blood vessels and the heart really DO feel a difference!
Now, you probably can’t cure heart disease, cancer, or inflammatory conditions by eating them. But, consuming them regularly could help prevent some of those health issues – along with providing you with healthful nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin B9 (folate), iron, fiber, potassium, and manganese.
Can’t Beet ‘Em? Join ‘Em!
Beets are wonderful veggies to grow in your garden. If it’s the middle of spring or fall and the first hard frost is over two months out, give them a try!
Almost all varieties are similar to grow (except for the sugar type), and very simple to get started. Once they get going, the rest is cake – including watering, harvesting, storing, and more.
The best part of growing this ruby-red gem: it’s delicious and healthy, if you learn the right ways to cook and eat it! If you’re already a lover of this veggie, then you’re already covered.
Do you grow beets? What are your favorite tips and tricks? Share with us in the comments below!
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Photo credit: Shutterstock. Product photo via NOLO Bait. Recipe photos used with permission.
The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.
About Adrian White
Adrian White is a certified herbalist, organic farmer, and health/food writer and expert. She aims to bridge the world of natural, holistic health and nutrition to the realm of organic foods, herbalism, gardening, and sustainability - or "Food as Medicine" - throughout her writing.