Beets were most likely first cultivated thousands of years ago by the Greeks and Romans. Early beets were primarily grown for their fleshy leaves which were similar to what we now call “Swiss Chard.” The first recorded evidence of beets being grown for their bulbous roots was in the 1500s in Germany and Italy. They are a great source of dietary fiber and carbohydrates and have a number of vitamins and antioxidants.
In the United States, beets are a relatively uncommon food that occasionally make an appearance in a side dish of roasted vegetables or a hearty soup. But unbeknownst to many people they’re actually a major staple crop and produce about 20% of the world’s sugar. The type of beets used to produce sugar are fittingly called sugar beets and are a great source of sweetness for folks growing their food in a temperate environment where sugarcane would not survive the winter.
In our subsistence gardens, we grow a bed of beets each year to use in venison borscht and as a food coloring in our wild red velvet cake. My wife, Silvan, also likes to occasionally use them as a natural blush and lipstick.
Most people are familiar with the classic deep red spherical beets commonly found in supermarkets, but there are actually a number of other colors, shapes, and flavors that you can experiment with when you grow your own.
For the classic red beet look and flavor, our favorite variety is Bull’s Blood— named for its deep, blood-red color. The Italian heirloom beet, Chioggia, provides a beautiful pink striping and mild flavor for folks who aren’t crazy about the classic earthy beet flavor. Finally, Touchstone Gold is a very sweet beet that resembles an orange carrot in color. Together these three make a nice beet bouquet that can double as a kitchen decoration until you’re ready to eat them.
Beets are very cold-hardy and can be planted outdoors in the spring about 6 weeks before your average last frost and then again in the late summer for a winter crop. They can grow in partial sun, and will produce nice beet greens and a small root. But if you are going for the quintessential big round beetroots, you’ll need to plant them in full sun (at least 6 hours per day). Beets can be seeded directly outdoors in the garden or started indoors in trays and transplanted when they are a few inches tall.
Each beet “seed” is actually a little cluster of seeds that are fused together to form a dry fruit. Beets can be grown in clusters or “modules'' which is what happens if you plant each seed cluster without thinning them. For large round beets, you should thin them until there’s only one beet seedling every 3 inches. That said, many gardeners swear by the module growing method where three to four beets are grown together in a cluster. In my experience, they are often significantly smaller when grown this way.
Beets are fairly short in stature and do not compete well with weeds so you’ll want to be vigilant and remove any unwanted plants that start shading them out in the garden. Spreading some leaf mulch or grass clippings between your rows of beets will help prevent weeds from overtaking them and make your beet garden a little more hands-off.
The primary insect pests for beets are leaf miners which are small flies whose larvae tunnel through the leaves of beets and spinach destroying the cells as they go. Leaf miners are very easy to identify because of the conspicuous tunnels they leave in their wake. You can control them by finding the larvae in the leaf and simply squishing them without tearing too much of the leaf. Leaf miners are also very susceptible to several species of parasitic wasps and yellow jackets, so beneficial insect habitat like a flower garden will help control them as well. Because they are protected inside the leaves of your beets, leaf miners are not particularly susceptible to pesticides.
At the end of the season remember to remove and compost any potentially affected beet leaves from your garden because leaf miners overwinter as larvae in the residue and emerge as adults in the Spring to lay eggs in your new crop. Disrupting this cycle will not fully eradicate them from your garden, but it will significantly reduce their population each year.
Once your beets reach your preferred size you can simply pull them up, wash them, and they’re ready for dinner. If you want to preserve your beets to use throughout the winter you should lightly brush off any big chunks of soil rather than washing them and store them in a cool dark place with their leaves and taproot removed. Depending on the variety of beets that you grew they can last in storage for months. We keep ours in a wax-lined box in our garage over the winter and last year we were eating them well into the spring.