Beets are a nutritious, easy to grow vegetable. While they are grown mainly for their roots, beet foliage may also be harvested for greens. Beet roots are most often globe-shaped and dark red in color. However, the roots of some varieties can be flat or long and tubular. Golden yellow and white root varieties are also available.
Beets perform best in loose, well-drained soils. Clay soils can be improved by applying and incorporating compost or well-rotted manure into the soil. Raised beds are a solution for poorly drained sites.
Sow beet seeds at a depth of 1/2 to 1 inch any time after March in central Iowa. Additional plantings can be made every 2 to 3 weeks for a continuous harvest. The last practical planting date for a fall crop is August 1. Rows should be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. When the seedlings reach a height of 3 to 4 inches, thin the planting. After thinning, plants should be spaced 3 to 4 inches apart.
Suggested beet varieties for Iowa include Ruby Queen (deep red, globe-shaped), Red Ace (dark red, globe-shaped), Detroit Dark Red (dark red, globe-shaped), Cylindra (dark red, cylindrical), Burpee's Golden (yellow-orange, globe-shaped), and Chioggia (flesh consists of red and white concentric rings).
The most common problem growing beets is not thinning the planting. Proper spacing is essential for a quality crop. Thinning is especially important for beets since every beet "seed" is actually a fruit which contains several seeds. When thinning the planting, remove the smaller, weaker seedlings and leave the stronger, more vigorous plants. The thinned plants can be used as greens.
Poor germination may be another problem. Poor germination may result from crusting of the soil surface or dry soil conditions. Crusting can be prevented by mulching the seeded row with sawdust, peat moss, or dry grass clippings. Water the row during dry weather to promote germination.
Beets may be harvested when the roots are 1 inch in diameter. However, the main crop usually isn't harvested until the roots are 1 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. (Beets larger than 3 inches in diameter are often tough and fibrous.) Beets require approximately 50 to 70 days from planting until harvest.
After harvest, trim the foliage back to within 1/2 to 1 inch of the roots. Beets can be used fresh or frozen, canned or pickled. They are also suitable for long-term storage. Beets can be stored at a temperature of 32 F and relative humidity of 98 to 100 percent for 3 to 4 months.
This article originally appeared in the 3/12/2004 issue.