A dirt-covered beet freshly pulled from the soil does not instinctively rouse the appetite—unless, of course, you know what’s beneath that rough exterior. Beets have nourished civilizations for many centuries, from the Neolithic peoples of the Netherlands to the Roman Empire and 8th-century Babylonia. Those early wild beets, used as food and medicine, were long and sinewy rather than round. Lynn Coulter, author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds, says that spherical beets began to appear during the 15th or 16th century, developed through the slow process of selection.
Today, this Mediterranean native remains a staple of vegetable gardeners around the world, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Its fleshy roots are delectable and good for you. “The roots themselves contain potassium, folic acid, manganese, and lots of fiber; and edible beet greens offer vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron,” says John Jett, Ph.D., a former consumer horticulture specialist with the West Virginia University Extension Service.
Beets, like carrots, turnips, and Swiss chard, are biennial, meaning they flower and set seed their second year of growth (sometimes, though, they bolt prematurely, especially during hot, dry spells). Beets are also very cold-hardy. “I get my seeds in the ground about 4 weeks before our last expected frost in the spring,” says Coulter. “Then I sow more seeds every 2 weeks, to keep a steady supply of fresh, tender beets.” Stop planting when the temperatures hit 75 degrees but then begin sowing seeds again about 8 weeks before the first expected fall frost for a delicious late-season harvest. Coulter gardens in Georgia, but her planting schedule works in cooler climates, too.
Though beet seeds can be started indoors under lights, it’s far simpler to sow them directly in the garden. “Beet seeds can be tricky to germinate because of a hard seed covering,” Jett says. “Soak the seeds in warm water for a few hours before sowing them to increase the chances of germination.”
Beets grow best in full sun and well-drained soil. “Plant them in garden soil that’s been worked to a depth of 8 to 10 inches and cleared of rocks,” Coulter says. “Use lots of good organic material to amend your soil.”
Sow beet seeds to a depth of 1⁄2 to 1 inch and space rows 12 to 18 inches apart. Thin the seedlings to leave 2 to 4 inches of space between plants, using the wider spacing if the beets will be harvested at their fully mature size. It’s important to note that most beet seeds are multigerm (though a handful of monogerm varieties do exist), meaning there is not just a single embryo in each seed but rather a cluster of several. This results in multiple plants emerging from each planted seed, making thinning compulsory. Jett also reminds gardeners that keeping the soil moist throughout the growing season results in roots of better quality. A layer of organic mulch helps retain soil moisture, stabilize temperature, and suppress weeds.
Beets require an ample amount of phosphorus to produce large, healthy roots. Since this nutrient is not very mobile within the soil, it is most often applied as a sidedressing by distributing it along the length of the rows. Soil pH also affects the availability of phosphorus; the mineral is most accessible to plant roots when the pH is between 6.0 and 7.0, which is the favored pH range for beets. If a soil test notes a lack of phosphorus, an early-season, side-dress application of bonemeal or rock phosphate should fill in the gap.
A few insect pests occasionally bother beets. To protect beet foliage from leaf miners, flea beetles, leafhoppers, and other potential troublemakers, cover the newly planted rows with floating row cover and leave it in place until harvest.