Beets need lots of nitrogen, so try planting them where beans, peas or a winter cover crop grew the season before. Like all root crops, they love loose, sandy soil. If you have heavy or poorly drained soil, use raised beds.
Space beets about 2 to 4 inches apart in rows that are 12 to 20 inches apart. When the plants are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin them to 4 to 6 inches apart.
Keep the soil evenly moist but not wet. Apply 4 to 8 inches of mulch when plants first emerge to help maintain soil moisture and limit weeds. Uneven moisture and/or dry soil can result in tough, stringy roots.
Once the first set of leaves is open, begin a weekly spraying of liquid fish and seaweed fertilizer. If your beets start showing their ever-broadening "shoulders" above the soil surface, hill up the soil to keep the beet fully covered.
Beets come in a variety of colors, and there are even a few types with a cylindrical, rather than globe, shape.
Red: "Big Red", "Red Ace", "Early Wonder", "Detroit Dark Red", "Merlin", "Pacemaker"
Yellow: "Golden", "Touchstone Gold"
Striped: "Chioggia" (heirloom)
Beet greens - the leafy part of the plant - are rich in vitamins and a great addition to your diet, either raw or cooked. In fact, back in the olden days, beets were grown exclusively for the leafy top, not the bottom. A couple of the favorite beet leaf varieties are "Lutz Green Leaf" and "Bull's Blood" (heirloom).
Beets themselves are incredibly versatile. They can be cooked and eaten warm with butter, roasted, stuffed, pickled, chopped and served raw in salads, or pureed into the popular Russian soup known as borscht.
The Beet Goes On
Some fascinating facts about beets:
- Beets (beta vulgaris) are a member of the order of flowering plants called Caryophyllales, which also includes bougainvillea, cacti, amaranth, carnations, spinach, and venus fly traps.
- Beets were an important plant for both the ancient Greeks and Romans. Beets of this period were white or black rather than red. The Roman name for the beet plant was "beta" while the Greeks referred to it as "teutlion."
- It's believed that ancient Greeks first cultivated wild beets; some historians relate anecdotes about Greeks offering beet greens to the god Apollo on a silver platter at the temple of Delphi.
- The Romans considered beet juice to be an aphrodisiac.
- Modern beets are derived from wild sea beets that originated around the coasts of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
- Since the 16th century, beet juice has been used as a natural red dye. It was even used as a hair dye.
Beets are beautiful, versatile, and good for you. Be an "up-beet" gardener and grow some for yourself!