How to Grow Beets

Growing big beets is more difficult than smaller ones, but they're generally pretty easy to grow.

by Rick Gush
roasted beets
Fortunately, some markets in Italy sell already-roasted beets. Yum! Photo by Rick Gush

Roasted beets are the sweetest and best-tasting form of this crop, but I’ll admit that roasting my own isn’t very convenient. The beets I manage to grow are often a bit undersize, and the best-roasted beets are the big, full-size monsters. Having said that, one can imagine my delight at discovering that here in Italy, vegetable markets sell very large, pre-roasted beets.

The slightly smoky flavor of roasted beets goes well with the thick sweetness of its red flesh, and I think that roasting also helps in some way to prolong their storage life. I know the roasted beets I see in the markets can be stored for months in their crusty, roasted skins. Fresh beets need a good root-cellar environment to stay edible for months after harvest.

I’ve never been a great beet grower; my beets are usually about 2 to 3 inches across. I had a friend who once grew monster beets 4 or 5 inches across, and he was growing in sandy, river-bottom soil, but he also fertilized like crazy.

As with most crops, a rapid growth when young and adolescent is key to producing a beetroot to its full size potential. Slower growth makes for smaller roots. Faster growth also means that some of the crunchy leaves can be harvested from the young plants, and those leaves are just as tasty as any beet green or Swiss chard.

Heavy, organic soil additions and mulches are good practices with beets, because beets generally dislike alkaline soil conditions. Mulches are also a great way to keep weeds down in the beet patch. If fertilizers are used, they should have a ratio of less nitrogen and more phosphorous and potassium, because it is a root that’s being grown as a crop, not the top growth. Bone meal and fireplace ashes are great fertilizers to mix into the soil before planting beets. I’ll use a thick strip of hoof and horn buried a foot deep as the main fertilizer for my next crop, early next spring. That strategy is working very well on some of the other crops in our garden, such as the broccoli, which are already very sturdy.

Beet plants like to grow in the cooler periods of the year, so people mostly grow beets in the spring and in the fall, but some mild locations allow growing a nice winter crop. Beets seeds are easy to handle and they germinate relatively quickly, but almost everybody plants the seeds too close together. Luckily, beet seedlings transplant well, so the required thinning process, in which the young plants are removed to create a spacing of 4 inches, can also yield a lot of new small seedlings from transplanting somewhere else. Because momentum is so important, the earlier planted beet crops usually fare better than late plantings. Later plantings face pest buildup and environmental problems that main-season seedlings don’t.

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