One season gardening used to be all I did. Put in the plants in the spring, harvest in July, August and sometimes in September and clean up in October. Then the prices of organic produce shot through the roof and I started thinking that there had to be a way to get more out of my dirt than tomatoes, cukes, peppers and eggplant.
My adventure with growing more and longer began a bit late in my gardening life but I’m glad it did. Truthfully, I probably will never get as far as master gardeners like Eliot Coleman. who authored a favorite book of mine, Four Season Harvest, but I am enjoying cool weather crops like fresh lettuce, spinach and beets from March through October.
Let’s start this trip with one of my all-time favorites – beets
My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten. Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving. There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.
But I never planted beets in my own garden. Not before she died, not after she died. Then, one day, while browsing through GrowItalian.com, I saw Chioggia beets. Beautiful, round and ruby-red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice.
I was in love with beets, again.
Beets Are Easy Peasy
I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 5 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow. But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 3 million entries.
Don’t be scared!
There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6.) WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy. I know. My first crop was used in a game of ringer.
This is almost one of the only requirements of beets and it’s one of the most important. It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles. Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with a wide range but won’t grow as big or as beautifully.
So do a bit of soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know. And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.
Remove stones since they will hinder growth. If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall. And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.
When To Plant
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season. Beets won’t like it. They are a perfect cool weather crop. Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days but they can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze. So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.
How To Plant
Beet seeds are outdoor babies from the get go. As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them. The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds. Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds. I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.
Beets seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil. I usually water a bit, every day. Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.
Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out. But don’t overwater either. Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.
TIP: I don’t thin; I transplant.
Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant. Wrong!
Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do.
I wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before I try transplanting. The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly. Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.
I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I can usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.
DON’T PULL THEM OUT ONE BY ONE!
Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a shovel full of soil with the beet roots intact. Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.
Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.
I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield. Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads. Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant. The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.
Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.
I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions. It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring. I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them. It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.
Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again. I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees. They don’t like it. Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.
Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace. You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Chioggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White
No matter how you slice them…beets are a great addition to any garden.
By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, informed, basic growing information is the so-called “land grant” colleges like Penn State and Ohio State. They usually offer fact sheets like the one on beets that was posted by Ohio State.
Next week, another favorite in my fall garden (and another easy one to grow) — lettuce!