By Will Bonsall
There’s nothing new about beets. They’re among the oldest vegetables cultivated by humans. The ancient Greeks esteemed them, starting with their wild ancestor, Beta vulgaris spp. maritima (still found growing wild on the Adriatic littoral). They eventually bred them into the sweet and succulent food we enjoy today. In much more modern times, we have further selected them to produce chard, sugar beets and mangels, all Beta vulgaris and thus all crossable (more on that later). Here we’re talking about the common garden beet.
Some places and times have known them as red beets, beetroot or blood turnips (though no relation to true turnips), obviously due to the red pigment called anthocyanin. In fact, some cuisines use a bit of beetroot as a food coloring. When it comes to health benefits, beets are no slouches. They’re rich in the alkaline minerals potassium, calcium and sodium, as well as manganese and iron, and vitamins A and B9 (folate). Being high in cholesterol-reducing soluble fiber and antioxidants, they’re very heart-friendly. They’re vasodilators, meaning they enlarge constricted vessels, allowing better blood flow. The nutritional potency of the greens is even greater than the roots.
The greens (we call them “greens” even though they’re often more purple in color) are a natural byproduct of thinning a planting to yield bigger roots. But what if you don’t care about the greens and consider the thinning process a waste of time? Can’t you simply plant your seeds accordingly, say, one seed every 3 inches or so? Sorry, it won’t work. You see, what looks like an individual seed is in fact a dried fruit with several seeds imbedded in it. Some commercial beet growers have sought and found a solution to this, since they can’t usually pay their workers in beet greens. Called “monogerm” varieties, as I understand it, they’re bred so that the first seed to sprout inhibits the other dormant seeds.
Incidentally, I’ve learned over the years to not be complacent when beets have reached full maturity and seem to be content just sitting there. Well, they may be, but you’re not the only one watching their development. Mice (or voles) seem to have figured out that they can eat the beets from the bottom up with you being none the wiser — until you pull them up and find lots of big, beautiful but hollow beets. When the beets are ready, harvest them or someone else will.
I plant a crop in mid-late May for early eating, though it is hardly necessary as beets store incredibly well and I’m often having to throw out some old-but-still-good beets to make room for the fresher crop. The main crop I usually sow in July to mature in late September to October. Beets don’t thrive in acid soil; in fact, their Balkan homeland includes the Dolomite Alps (as in dolomite lime), so they appreciate plenty of calcium and magnesium. Fortunately, both elements are abundant in wood ash which, unlike dolomite lime, does grow on my land, so I use it liberally. I companion-plant virtually all of my crops, and I find that beets seem to go especially well with leeks or kale but make a poor match for runner beans. I seed beet rows a foot away from the companion rows and thin the beets to 3 inches apart. I usually mulch with shredded leaves, which are very quick to apply and settle close around the plants, giving excellent weed control. I take care to supply ample moisture at first, although once their taproots get well-established, they’re quite heat- and drought-tolerant. Beets are very sensitive to boron deficiency, even more so than other root crops, so a modest application of borax may be beneficial. That also helps with ants, which like to chew down the sweet seedlings. Mice often damage young plants the same way, and when the beets are larger rabbits and deer can be a problem. One encouraging note: I’ve often had young beet plants nibbled down to the crowns grow back quickly to yield a decent crop. Most other crops will be ruined by this one-time grazing.
When most of us think about beets, we picture the top-shaped dark red Detroit type, which in my opinion have the best eating quality, but there are other types. The Chioggia variety from northern Italy has alternate pink and white growth rings that bleed together in cooking, yet still have that “special” look, while tasting pretty much the same as red beets. The white and yellow varieties are a quaint novelty, but to me they lack the robust beet flavor. The cylindrical varieties like Formanova might appear to yield more with their tall out-of-the-ground shape, but their narrowness negates much of that advantage; moreover, they’re much poorer keepers and a bit bland. In my opinion, if you’re selling to customers who are charmed by the novel colors and shapes, then grow those, but if you’re looking for maximum flavor and long storage, then stick with the Detroit types.
After digging the beets, the foliage should be trimmed off immediately before the tops can suck moisture from the roots by transpiration. At this stage the greens are pretty tough for eating, so to the compost they go. Although beets are fairly tolerant of dry growing conditions, in storage they should be kept quite damp lest they wither. I store mine in rodent-proof galvanized trash cans with layers of dry maple leaves to cushion them. Cut the leaf stems pretty short but take care to not damage the crown, again to avoid withering. As with all root crops, storage should be above freezing but cold, such as in an unheated cellar. Properly stored the beets should remain in fine eating condition until well after the following spring crop comes in.
Now, I cannot refrain from telling you how to save your own beet seed, even if you have no intention of doing so. Perhaps your favorite variety is no longer available, as is increasingly common in recent years with so much instability in the seed industry, or perhaps you garden to save money and be more self-reliant — all great reasons to be able to save your own beet seed.
First of all, consider that beets are a biennial, growing a vegetative storage structure — the beet — and only sending up seed stalks and producing seed the second year, after a winter in storage. Occasionally you may find a plant (especially true with chard) that goes to seed in the first season. Get rid of it. It won’t form a proper eating beet and you certainly don’t want any seed from it, nor other seed plants contaminated by it. Grow and store the roots just as you would to eat them (generally avoiding the large overgrown roots, which may put too much energy into producing more foliage). Again, store them very damp so they don’t wither, and be oh-so-careful not to injure the crowns, as that is where all the second-year reproductive growth originates. If you’re saving seed from more than one beet variety, or if you’re also growing second-year chard (same species, happy to mate with beets), then make sure you replant them in plots at least 100 meters apart — preferably much more as they are wind-pollinated and the very fine light pollen can drift far. Also try not to damage the little taproot and avoid cuts and bruises. Protect them from deer and other animals. Floating row cover can suffice until the plants start pushing it up: remove before flowering commences. The beets will send up gangly flower stalks that you will need to stake and tie up. Those plants, which in their adolescence (first year) were comfortable with 3 inches apart, will now look more like tumbleweeds and holding the stalks off the ground will give you more and better seed.
In late summer the green seeds (fruits actually) will begin to go yellow to brown, at which time you should watch them closely. As they turn brown and dry, start picking the seeds. Since they don’t always mature evenly, snip off branches with ripe seed and let the rest continue to mature. If left on the plant too long they may shatter onto the ground. When the seeds are thoroughly dry, rub them and blow away dusty chaff and pick out bits of dried stem. Properly stored beet seed can remain viable for a very long time, perhaps because the seeds are still fastened to the placental food source.
Just in case you’re one of those silly people who doesn’t grow beets because you’re not sure how to use them other than just boiled (which isn’t too shabby), here are some thoughts. Pickled beets are unsurpassed: a beautiful accent to the condiment tray. Just be sure they’re cooked tender before brining. There are many variations of borscht due to the many nationalities that embrace this hearty peasant soup. My own favorite involves lots of other ingredients (beans, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, ripe peppers, garlic, tomatoes, fermented sunflower cream, etc.), but beets are always in the lead. It’s my traditional main dish for winter solstice and never wears out. Red flannel hash is a popular sequel to New England boiled dinner: a traditional late-fall staple with beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, and corned beef for meat eaters (I prefer baked beans). The morning after, I take all the leftovers from aforesaid dinner and chop or mash them into a hearty breakfast hash, improved by condiments like ketchup or horseradish. Not too shabby at all. Try it — and try more beets, in whatever form, for a hearty easy-to-grow staple.
Note: If you are certified organic, make sure to check with your certifier regarding the use of borax.
About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed-saving enterprise. He is the author of “Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening” (Chelsea Green, 2015). And indeed, he is also a distant cousin of another exemplary Maine horticulturist: Tom Vigue. You can contact Will at [email protected].
This article was originally published in the fall 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.