Beets are best known for their deep, rich color, and the magical ability to stain whatever they come into contact. And while red is the color beets are most famous for, they also come in white, yellow, and variegated colors. Cultivated beets, Beta vulgaris, come from the Amaranth family, formally being included in the Chenopodiaceae family (also called the gooseroot family).
Beets are biennial plants, and both the beetroot and leaves, chard, are edible. The underground portion part is a root tuber. Their ‘earthy’ taste comes from the geosmin compound found naturally inside of them. Beets are a cool season vegetable, and they enjoy full sun to part shade, and lots of water in well-drained soil beds. Easy to grow and good to eat, beets are a very popular root vegetable to grow in the garden.
Not only are beets found in many colors, they are found in many shapes and sizes: large to mini; flattened to tapered. Of the many varieties, here are some stand-out ones.
- Sweetheart – Round, open pollinated, sweet, tops great used for greens, about 60 days to maturity
- Early Wonder – Flat globe shape, open pollinated, sweet, about 50 days to maturity
- Gladiator – Round, hybrid variety, good for canning preservation, about 50 days to maturity
- Little Ball Mini – Silver dollar size upon maturity at about 50 days, round, tops good for greens
- Chioggia – Round, white and red interior in a circular pattern (also known as bulls-eye), about 50 days to maturity
- Golden – Round, butter to gold in color, about 55 days to maturity
- Abino/Albina – Round, white in color, about 60 days to maturity
Beets are a biennial plant but usually grown as an annual crop. Seeds tend to not do as well if transplanted, so sow seeds directly in the soil and thin out when the time comes. Beets can be grown in all U.S. garden zones, and like neutral, well-drained soil. They also require regular watering. Apply regular mulch for feeding and keeping weeds down.
When sowing beet seeds, start them in about 1/2 inch to 1 inch deep soil, about 3 inches apart. If planting multiple rows of beets, plant the rows about 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart. For beets throughout the season, plant them in 3 to 4 intervals. As the seeds germinate and sprouts form on the surface, thin the sprouts out leaving the strongest left to grow. The thinnings and subsequent leaves can be used for salads or for sautéed greens.
Be on the lookout for leaf miners. If you suspect them feeding on your crop, cover the seedlings and plants with a floating row cover to protect them. Gophers also like to eat beets so take precautions if they are present. To prevent diseases such as leaf spot and scab, avoid wetting the foliage if possible, keep the weeds to a minimum, and avoid overcrowding of the plants themselves.
Harvest and Storage
This vegetable has both edible roots and greens. Harvest when they get to the size of your liking. Usually, beets need about 60 days for growing time so harvest a couple of days before or any time before that. For most varieties of beets, once they get to be larger than 3 inches in diameter, the beet flesh becomes tough and fibrous. Check each variety for optimum sizing at maturity.
Beets can be stored for about a week or so in the refrigerator’s produce compartment. They are best used fresh. Leave a couple of inches of the stem and the taproot on the beet to ensure best keeping quality. Leaving a portion of the stems (leaves) will also reduce the amount of bleeding during cooking.
Cooking with Beetroots and Chard (Leaves and Stems)
When handling beetroots, avoid breaking the skins as this allows the color to bleed when cooking. After cooking, the skins slip off easy enough.
- Beetroots can be steamed, roasted, baked, boiled, microwaved, stir fried, and eaten raw.
- As a snack, the roots can be sliced thin and deep fried or dried in the oven and served as chips.
- The leaves of young beet plants can be stir fried or eaten as fresh greens in salads.
- Chard is most commonly prepared by quick cooking methods like sautéing or steaming.
- The center stems or stalks take longer to cook than the leaves, and should be cut away from the leaves and cooked separately. Chard stems are great roasted and used in soups.