I will admit that there are a few vegetables that, grown in the garden, do not taste significantly different/better than their grocery store relatives–onions, I suppose, and maybe cauliflower. But most, fresh from the garden…there is just no comparison. Take freshly harvested garden beets. If you don’t grow them for their beauty alone, you should absolutely grow them for their fresh, earthy yet sweet flavors.
There are so many varieties of beets, it can be difficult to choose! Many heirloom varieties are available; options include color of the beet (red, yellow, orange, white and even striped), shape of the beet (round or cylindrical), and leaf/stalk color (greens and reds).
Why consider the leaves and stalks? Beets are actually two crops in one. The root is, of course, delicious and sweet, but the leaves are excellent as well. A few small leaves can be snipped as the beet grows and added to salad mixes, and the mature greens can be prepared in the manner of Swiss chard (beets and Swiss chard are very similar plants).
I have tried quite a few varieties over the years, but now grow primarily Chioggia (picture here), Cylindra, and Detroit Red. Chioggia is known for its sweet taste and gorgeous red and white concentric stripes. Cylindra grows longer, as its name implies. These are perfect for slicing and pickling. And Detroit Red is a beautiful deep red color with excellent flavor.
Beets are versatile, in that they can be planted from early spring through early fall, especially if planted under cover of plastic or fabric row cover for earliest harvests. The beets below were planted in April in the mini hoop house. Although only these four beets germinated from the dozen or so planted, it was absolutely worth the space in the 4′ x 8′ bed. Ideally, one could succession plant beet seeds every three weeks through August or September. My second and much larger planting of beets is in the main garden and should be ready in about 4-6 weeks. While beets are considered a cool weather crop, I have grown beets through the summer here in zone 5b.
Plant beet seeds in soil amended with compost or aged manure about 1/2″ deep and 2″-3″ apart. Somewhat closer spacing is fine too…as long as you don’t mind heaving thinning of the seedlings.
Care of Garden Beets
Beet seeds often produce two or three seedlings each. If this occurs, it is best to thin the seedlings to one plant per 3″. If this is done carefully while the plants are just an inch or two tall, the thinned seedlings can be successfully replanted elsewhere. This requires that the tap root is not damaged; I use a pencil or similar sized object to ease the little plant out. When replanted, the little seedling will need a few days to recover, but will quickly take root and start growing again. If may be helpful to mulch around the beets to help keep weeds down. Hand weeding should be done carefully to prevent damaging the beets’ roots. Other than that, just keep them watered and in just a couple of months, you will be harvesting delicious little red globes.
Harvesting Garden Beets
Usually ready around 50-70 days from planting, beets can be harvested at almost any size, from small baby beets, to larger, up to perhaps 3″ in diameter before becoming tough and woody. After washing remaining soil from the roots, separate the roots from the greens to keep them fresh for cooking. Keep spring beets in the refrigerator for up to a week or so.
Cooking and Eating your Beets
I almost always prepare beets in one of two ways: roasted or pickled. Pickled beets can be easily water bath canned and added to the larder for winter meals. Although not everyone’s favorite pickle, the homestead daughter and I love them as a snack or added to a salad.
To roast beets, cut off the root end and trim the stalks to within 1″ of the root. Place several beets on a sheet of foil and drizzle with olive oil. Wrap the foil into a packet around the beets and cook at 400 for 45-60 minutes, or until softened. After cooling, peel the beets and serve as a side dish or in a salad.
Just look at my lunch, packed tonight to take to work tomorrow. Fresh lettuce and spinach from the garden, a little red onion, roasted beets and some homemade cracked black pepper chèvre (check back in a few days for that recipe!). I am actually a little worried that salad might not make until tomorrow!