I grew up in a region where nobody ate beetroot. A few upstarts ate the canned version, but I was well into my adulthood before I tasted garden-fresh beetroots. What a revelation! Both beetroot greens and beet roots are delicious, and growing beetroot is easy if you use a few tricks.
A truly ancient food crop, gardeners have been growing and harvesting beetroot for four thousand years. Garden beetroot are enjoying a surge in popularity because of their beauty, nutrition, and complex flavours. Very dark red beet roots have a deep, rich, spicy flavour compared to yellow beetroot, which taste so mild they could almost be considered a different vegetable. Varieties can be had with lovely ring patterns, but let your choice of varieties be guided by your taste buds and your eyes. I like red beets for canning, but I plant a mix of varieties to bring a diversity of flavours and colours to the table.
A cool-season crop that grows best in spring and fall, beetroot mature in 60 days or so, and mature beetroot will usually hold in the garden for a couple of weeks. Beetroot grow best in rich, fertile soil with a near-neutral pH between 6.2 and 7.5.
Beetroot seeds are spiky nutlets that enclose pairs of tiny lentil-like seeds. Germination is often rapid yet spotty following warm spring rains; the easiest way to fill in skips in rows is to plant more seeds. It’s never too soon to start thinning and weeding beetroots, which I do with my fingers and the tip of an old steak knife. If both of the seeds in a nutlet germinate, one of the twins must be pulled out or snipped out with a small pair of scissors. When faced with numerous seedlings that must be thinned, I’ve had good luck lifting and transplanting very young beetroot seedlings, but seedlings moved when they have more than three leaves never recover from the trauma.
Maintaining steady soil moisture and controlling weeds are the two biggest challenges in growing beetroot. Beetroots that are allowed to run dry tend to develop high levels of geosmin in their tissues, which is the chemical compound that gives beetroots their earthy flavor and aroma. A little geosmin is good, but too much and your beetroots will start tasting like dirt. Please note: geosmin is most concentrated in the skins of beetroots, which should always be removed as they are prepared for the table.
After my beetroots are properly thinned and weeded, I often use a newspaper mulch to block out weeds. Thin layers of grass clippings are even better.
You can start harvesting beetroot greens for salads or cooking anytime, but removing leaves may reduce how much energy the plants can apportion to plump roots. Beetroots push up out of the soil as they expand, taking the guesswork out of beetroot harvesting time. Lightly wash beetroots after you pull them, and cut the leaves back to 2 inches before storing beetroot in the refrigerator. Leaving the leaves intact takes moisture from the harvested beetroots, but you can steam and freeze the young, tender beetroot greens taken from the centres of the crowns. In recipes, cooked chopped beetroot greens are interchangeable with closely related spinach or chard. Clean beetroots will keep in the fridge or root cellar for a couple of months.
As spring turns to summer, you can allow beetroots to stay in the ground as long as they are not stressed by dry conditions or searing sun. In hot summer areas, many gardeners erect shade covers over growing beetroots to preserve their quality during heat spells, thus stretching beetroot harvesting season by a couple of weeks.
Growing Beetroot in Fall
I grow a second crop of beetroot in the fall. In my experience, beetroot grown when days are getting shorter and cooler tend to be small but quite sweet. Plants left behind often survive winter in my garden, and overwintered plants produce a fast flush of beetroot greens before developing flowering stems from multiple crowns. Beetroots are true biennials, so they must endure a period of chilling before they develop flowers and seeds. The wait for ripe seeds can last 6 weeks from bolting, but it’s time well spent if you want to grow a seed crop from an open pollinated variety.
By Barbara Pleasant