When I was growing up in the Midwest, my family ate pickled beets on sandwiches, in salads, on crackers, and by themselves as a snack. If I hadn't been asked to thin the beet crop in our garden, I might have believed the purple-red "coins" spawned inside Mason jars rather than growing vinegar free in the soil.
After I moved to San Francisco—the city of stir-fries, raw foods, and experimental dining—I discovered how delightful beets are roasted with dill, glazed with honey butter, or even baked into chocolate cake! Now, you could say, I'm a true beetnik.
Benefits of Beets
Maybe, like me, you have a few negative associations about beets left over from your childhood. Before you turn the page, give me a chance to convince you that beets deserve a place in your garden this season.
Cancer-crushing colors. High in fiber and rich in vitamins A and C, beets have more iron than other vegetables, including spinach. And they're rich in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, as well as folic acid, which helps protect you from heart disease and guards against birth defects.
Better yet, the classic beet's red coloring comes from betalains—a combination of the purple pigment betacyanin and the yellow pigment betaxanthin. "The betalain pigments are potent antioxidants," says Irwin Goldman, Ph.D., a beet geneticist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Antioxidants deter the formation of cancer-causing free radicals.
Beauty on your plate. Those pigments make beets a feast for the eyes as well as nourishment for your body. Beets' rich reds, golden yellows, creamy whites, and stunning stripes will add a brilliant splash of seasonal color to your autumn meals. And their bright green foliage with red veins and stems brightens up your garden beds, too.
Two crops for the price of one. Beet greens are not only colorful; they're also tasty raw, braised, or stir-fried. And if you leave a little of the foliage to continue growing, you get plump roots that you can store and then eat when you want homegrown flavor after cold weather sets in.
Cold is cool. Beets are adapted to grow in cool weather, making them a perfect vegetable to plant both in spring and late summer. They thrive when the days are warm (60° to 70°F) and nights cool (50° to 60°F). They may go to seed if temperatures drop below 50°F for an extended period. Sow the seeds in full sun for the best roots; if you don't have a sunny spot in your garden, plant them anyway—beets still produce a lot of leafy greens in partial shade.
Harvest in fall. You can plant beet seeds directly in your garden about 8 to 10 weeks before the first expected frost and harvest them in time for the holidays. Beets harvested in fall have stronger colors than spring-planted beets, Goldman says, and fall beets often have higher sugar levels as well. So what are you waiting for? Plant a row or two this week.
Or in spring. For a spring crop, plant beets as soon as the soil dries out and you can work it, typically from March to mid-May; where the weather remains cold and wet into spring, wait until April. Beets do transplant surprisingly easily for a root crop, so you can germinate the seeds inside and move them to the garden as soon as the soil dries out in spring.