When I mention ripe beets coming out of the ground this time of year, I don’t get much excitement out of my kids, but they are certainly a favorite of mine.
I have fond memories of fresh beets from my grandmother’s garden. She served them pretty regularly as a side, fresh when possble and canned the rest of the year, and I actually liked them quite a bit when I was a kid.
The hearty root crops are edible top to bottom, relatively easy to cultivate and quite productive for the garden space they occupy.
One very common misconception about beets relates to their heat tolerance, with many folks believing they can only be grown in the cooler part of the growing season, such as early spring and late fall. However, beets can be planted throughout the growing season in Illinois. They are quite cold hardy though, which may be the root of this misconception.
Beets are one of the first things I plant in the garden each spring, starting them from seeds about a month before our last frost. Their hardy tops can take quite a bit of cold before showing signs of reduced vigor, giving them excellent resistance to a few late frosts.
This spring, my wife did a succession planting of beets, meaning she planted them in small sections over a few weeks so the mature plants would be spaced out over the same interval at harvest. That way, we had a batch ready for harvest each week as opposed to one large harvest if we had planted them all the same day. We should get one more harvest from this planting in the next week or so, and I have been contemplating what to plant into the empty bed.
I realized that I had fallen into the mistaken belief that beets are more of a cool-season crop when a fellow Extension horticulture educator suggested I plant more beets as we were contemplating our fall gardens together. Why didn’t I think of that? The bed is already set up for beets, making another succession planting quite easy.
The beet “seed” is actually a cluster of seeds in a dried fruit, giving them an odd lumpy appearance, but making them easier to handle than the smaller seeds of many common garden crops. Plant beet seeds about inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows that are spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.
Since the seeds are clumped together, several seedlings will likely germinate from each fruit, making later hand thinning a must.
For me, thinning is always a difficult task. I have not had a problem pulling a weed, but pulling out a plant that I have sown just never feels right. However, thinning is always a necessity in the beet patch because beet plants are highly sensitive to competition. In addition, seed germination and subsequent emergence of seedlings often occur over a relatively long period, creating a stand of beets with somewhat varying age and sizes.
I maintain the space between rows with shallow cultivation and hand-pulling of weeds. One of the most common mistakes, resulting in undersized beets at harvest, is allowing weed competition or competition from inadequate thinning. Beets have very shallow roots and are weak competitors, especially when small. I have found that it’s critical to keep them free of competition in the first few weeks of growth or they will be set back significantly.
I typically thin beets to about 3-inch spacing a few weeks after they germinate. If you plan it right, the plants you thin out can be used as greens, which helps me deal with the fact that I am pulling something I planted. It does become a bit of balancing act in letting the plants get large enough to make a worthwhile greens harvest and not creating too much competition for the developing beets that will remain.
For most beet varieties, the optimal size for harvest is about 1 inches in diameter, with many reaching maturity in about 50 to 60 days. At about 1 inch of diameter, beets really tend to take off growing. In no time at all, your beets may be approaching 3 inches in diameter, which is about the largest size I care to harvest.
It’s tempting to wait too long before harvest because the tops look so lush and healthy, but harvesting at optimal size will avoid the toughness beets develop as they approach the 3-inch size. Nothing turns a kid off more than tough, chewy beets at dinnertime.