Nothing Beats Beets!
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Beets are the ultimate in multi-purpose vegetables. Both the familiar roots, the leaves and even the stems can be used in everything from borscht to burgers to salad. Add this to the fact that beets grow fantastically well here in the Calgary area, and you have a real winner for the veggie garden. Beets (Beta vulgaris) are a member of the Amaranthaceae family which also includes spinach, Swiss chard (actually the same species as beets, just a variety that has fabulous greens and smaller roots) and amaranth. So let's take a look at these super versatile veggies!
Since ancient Roman times, the beet has been used for dyes, teas, medicinal agents treating constipation, fevers, skin disorders, circulation, and even as an aphrodisiac. It was the roots that were mostly used for these properties. The greens were the part that were considered the yummiest part of the beet plant. Today that has been reversed. We almost solely eat the beetroot and discard the greens. (But you shouldn't! The greens are packed full of nutrition and are super flavourful in their own right.)
Later Romans developed and used the large bulbous roots extensively in cuisine. The most common recipes were for pickled beetroots in vinegar, and those recipes continue to be around today. (See below for a couple of my favourite pickled beet recipes.) Did you know that in some parts of Australia, even McDonald's serves pickled beets on its hamburgers? It's true!
The use of beets to produce sugar began when Britain restricted sugar cane to France in the early 1800s. In later years beet sugar intensified as an alternative to sugar cane for those conscious that sugar cane was deeply associated with the slave trade in the Americas. Today there are a multitude of beet varieties, some that produce fabulous greens, some that have huge roots of many colours and some that are grown specifically for sugar production.
Why Grow Beets?
Beets are, without a doubt, one of the easiest vegetables to grow in our climate. They are quick to germinate and grow to harvestable size, often allowing you to get in more than one succession planting a year. Plus they are bothered by very few pests and diseases. Win-win all round!
And beets are nutrient powerhouses! They are low in calories and a significant source of boron, which is responsible for the production of sex hormones in humans. The roots, specifically, have amazing antioxidant properties, contain a high amount of vitamins and minerals and have a wide array of micronutrients (such as fiber, manganese, potassium, magnesium, iron, and folate). One of the most useful groups of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that beets contain are the betalains (Betaine is one) which encourages your hard-working liver to rid the body of toxins and protects the body from aging and disease. Don't forget about those greens! They are packed with vitamins (vitamin C, vitamin A and leutin for improving eye health, vitamin K, vitamin D for strong teeth and vitamin B6 to improve mood and boost depression), and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. In fact, beet greens have even more iron than spinach (sorry Popeye)! High in fiber, beet greens are also fantastic prebiotics (those are foods that feed probiotics in our intestinal tracts). Last but not least, the greens are super rich in Vitamin B9 (folate) which is essential for maternal health. The bottom line? Beets are healthy! Like, super-duper healthy.
Have I mentioned yet that they taste great too? Beets have an earthy, sweet flavour that is intensified if you leave them in the ground until after a good frost (the plants start converting their starches to sugars then). And they are super versatile in the kitchen. All parts of the plant can be used (root, stem and leaves) so there is little to no waste and they can be prepared in a plethora of ways: from raw to steamed to roasted.
I also need to address one thing before we go on. It is called beeturia and it can scare the poop out of you if you aren't mentally prepared for it (pun intended). Beeturia is when your urine and feces turn a disturbing red or pink colour after eating red beets. The colour is a result of how some people's bodies metabolize the betanin found in beets. This doesn't happen to everyone, but it does happen to many people. It is completely harmless, but sometimes may indicate an slight iron deficiency or low stomach acid. So if it happens very often to you, and you are concerned, please ask your doctor about it.
How To Grow
Beets prefer deep, well drained soils with a neutral pH but, honestly, they are not overly finicky about what they grow in. However, they are a root vegetable, and therefore aren't overly happy in a container. They need full sun to grow their best, but they will tolerate light shade. It will just take them longer to reach maturity with restricted light. Beets are moderate feeders, so it never hurts to add compost or an organic fertilizer into the soil before planting. Don't use a high nitrogen fertilizer though, or you will end up with fantastic beet greens and not very impressive beet roots.
Beets should be planted right about our last frost date (May 23rd) by direct seeding (see the article on Quick and Dirty Direct Seeding here). They do not appreciate being transplanted. To encourage faster germination, feel free to soak your seeds in water overnight before planting.
Seeds are typically planted 1/2" deep and 2 - 3" apart. Root size is controlled by spacing (as well as variety) so think about the size you want to harvest them at when decided on their final spacing. If planting in traditional rows, the rows should be 8 - 12" apart. If using square foot gardening, go for 9-16 per square foot depending, once again, on how large a size you are going harvest the roots at. Plants will germinate anywhere between 10 C and 26 C, but their ideal germination temperature is at 25 C. Seeds will germinate in 5-12 days depending on your soil temperature.
The beet seeds we purchase or collect ourselves are actually nutlets, a small fruit that contains 1-4 seeds within them. So even if you plant a single seed per hole, you may still have more than one plant germinate, making thinning unavoidable. Thin to 3- 6" apart when greens reach 2"tall. Don't forget to eat those thinnings, they're microgreens!
Sow separate squares or rows every two weeks to stagger your harvest. That way you won't have a million beets all needing to be used at once. Most years, you can sow right until the beginning of July and still have harvestable size roots and greens before the first hard frost. If you are planting in the same space, you can usually get two back to back crops crammed into one growing season if you harvest the first crop as smaller roots.
Beets grow well with all the Brassicas, corn, garlic, leeks, lettuce, mint and Bush beans (but not pole beans as they compete for growth). Adding cut up mint leaves to the mulch around your beets will help prevent cutworm damage if that is an issue in your garden. If leafminers are a problem, planting radish nearby as a trap crop can also be helpful. See the article on Companion Planting for more suggestions.
Don't forget to add those beet scraps, greens and stems to your compost pile! They are a great addition of manganese and iron to your future soil.
You can harvest your beets at a number of different sizes. It all depends what you are using them for. Beets can be picked all the way from teeny tiny microgreens to golf ball size baby beets to huge melon sized roots. The tastiest and most ideal size for picking will be when the root is the size specified on your seed package or when the greens are approximately 6" tall. Not too big and not too small, just right. Larger beets get progressively more woody and less sweet the longer you leave them. That being said, do try to leave the roots in until after a frost if possible. Like carrots, beets get sweeter after a frost as starches are converted to sugars.
Greens can be harvested throughout the growing season by cutting one or two leaves off of each plant. Don't take more than that or it will affect the growth of the root. Once you harvest the whole plant, you can go to town on the leaves. Younger leaves are more tender and are great raw in salads. Older leaves are usually tougher, but still wonderful when cooked (especially braised). Note that younger leaves tend to have less holes in them from munching insects.
If using square foot gardening you can get approximately 8 pounds of beetroot per square foot. For a 100' row, you can expect to harvest approximately 40 lbs of greens and 100 lbs of beetroots.
Beetroots are best kept just like carrots. Remove the tops, ensuring you don't cut into the root. Save and use those greens and stems! Scrub your roots with a nail brush (they work the best for me) and pat dry. Store in a plastic bag with a couple paper towels inserted into it to absorb excess moisture. Keep in the refrigerator for 6 - 12 months. Check them every once and awhile to make sure there is no mold or rot and remove the offending roots. Pat dry again and repack with fresh paper towels .If you have a root cellar or cool basement, unwashed beets can be stored in peat moss or sand within a perforated large bin. This allows for adequate air flow that prevents mold and rot issues. Again, check every once in a while and remove any roots developing bad spots. Do not store near apples, as the ethylene emitted by them will make your beets bitter.
You can also roast your beetroots. Individually wrap each root in foil (or place roots in roasting pan and cover tightly with foil) and bake at 350 F until tender, around 1 hour depending on the size of your beets. Allow to cool, rub off the skins and freeze them whole. Make sure to use a zip top bag or a vacuum sealed bag to remove as much oxygen as possible before freezing and use within 6 months. This makes for very fast roasted vegetable salads throughout the winter months! Beet greens can be washed, blanched (dunk them in boiling water for 30 seconds and then stop the cooking by moving them into an ice water bath), drained and packed into zip top bags to go into the freezer for later. Blanching is a necessary step to preserve colour, flavour and texture so don't skip it.
Harvesting seed from beets is quite challenging for a couple of reasons. First off, beets are biennials. That means they produce flowers and seeds their second year of growing. You either need to leave your beets in the ground over winter and mulch them like crazy (so they don't freeze through and rot, technically they are a zone 5) or you must dig them up, store them in a cool place over winter and replant the roots in the spring so they can flower.
The second reason they are challenging is that beets are wind pollinated. This means they depend on the wind to distribute their pollen to other plants. You will need a minimum of 12 closely planted beets to get a decent amount of pollination, although more is always better. In addition, different varieties must be isolated from each other by at least 500m so they do not cross-pollinate. Swiss chard is the same species as beets so you also need to isolate from any Swiss chard that is flowering as well. Have I completely scared you off yet? Don't be discouraged! If you happen to have the garden space and the determination, just try it! And if it works, brag about it like crazy on social media. Whether you collect your own or purchase them, beet seeds will last 4 years if kept cool and dry.
Pests & Other Issues
Leaf miners are the larvae of a type of sawfly. The flies lay their eggs into the leaves by making a small cut in the leaf. When hatched, the larvae eat the interior of the leaves. Often times you will see black spots in the browned sections that is the fracas (poop) of the larvae. Leafminers rarely do large amounts of damage to beets, but if you are worried, there are some actions you can take to reduce that damage. First is to use row covers to prevent the flies from laying the eggs in the first place. They should go on the moment you see the sprouts poking through the soil. Using row covers that still allow sunlight and moisture to penetrate are best. They can be found wherever gardening tools are sold. You can also let nature take care of the problem for you. Populations of predatory non-stinging wasps occur naturally here. They will naturally reduce leafminer infestations and damage will be limited. This does require a bit of patience as well as tolerance for a small amount of damage (there needs to be some prey in order for predators to exist and stick around). It also means not using chemical pesticides, as these will kill the wasps we want to encourage.
Beets can also be sometimes bothered by root maggots, slugs and cutworms. Most often these pests do not do significant damage, as beets are not their preferred food. Row covers work for root maggots (they are the larvae of a type of fly), beer traps work well for slugs, and a metal can or cardboard tube will prevent cutworm damage. See the article on pests called What Bugs Me (coming soon). Fungal issues can be an issue every so often too. It can be controlled with sulfur or copper fungicides if they get really bad. A better idea is ensure plants are not too closely spaced and that you water in the mornings instead of the evenings.
Boron deficiency, which can be common in beets, shows up as black cancers in the roots. Borax (the laundry soap) can be used to add boron to your soil, but it needs to be very carefully applied to prevent over application (1 Tbsp per 4L of water applied over 100 sq.ft.).
An over abundance of nitrogen in the soil, as compared to phosphorous and potassium will result in lots of bushy greens and small, under-sized roots. Ensure you don't use fertilizers with a high proportion of nitrogen when supplementing your soil. Planting beets in a bed previously housing heavy feeders like tomatoes should prevent this. Another great reason for rotating your crops.
Most beets that grow well here in the Calgary area will mature in about 60 - 70 days from seeding. Golden and white beets tend to be a bit more mellow and less earthy tasting then red with the added bonus of not staining everything they touch. However you don't get that beautiful red or pink colour from them either. I like to plant a mixture of all three colors in my garden because nothing is more beautiful than a mix of the three together in a dish!
Detroit Dark Red
relatively low concentration of geosmin (what gives beets that "earthy" taste)
good all purpose beet
This is the principal beet grown in the United States for commercial production
another good all purpose beet
fast growing (55 days)
quite sweet with a very smooth exterior on the root
nice greens as well
sweetest red variety
good for continuous picking of greens
dark purple leaves
extremely high in vitamin and antioxidants
great for boldly coloured microgreens
elongated, more cylindrical beets
perfect for canning/pickling
Cylindra (also known as Formanova)
elongated, more cylindrical beets
sweeter (especially greens) than Tannus
best variety for winter storage
a bit longer days to maturity (usually about 65 days)
gorgeous golden colour with matching golden stems
a bit lighter gold colour than Touchstone gold and slightly better germination
gorgeous golden colour with white stems
more mellow flavour, less earthy tasting than red or golden varieties
sweetest of all, but skin can be a bit bitter in certain soil conditions
Fantastic concentric rings of red and white
higher levels of geosmin, therefore, if you are not a fan of the "earthy" flavor associated with beets, this variety may not be your favourite
Guardsmark type is the best if you can find it
grown just for large quantities of fantastic greens
root is not significant
processed as table sugar
white, super sweet and quite large
Grown for use as animal fodder
In The Kitchen
As mentioned a number of times so far, all parts of the beet can (and should!) be eaten: root, leaves and stems. And they can be prepared in a huge variety of ways. they can be juiced, steamed, boiled, roasted, sautéed or even eaten raw. After preparing, beets can be used in salads, as chips, pureed into a dip, in smoothies, in soups, pureed into pancakes, cupcakes or brownies, as a dye in frostings, chopped into burgers, pickled or fermented into a probiotic drink. And don't forget microgreens! See the article on Sprouts, Shoots and Microgreens for more details.
I hope I have inspired you to try growing beets in whatever plot of soil you have in your space. Your health, and your taste buds, will thank you!
Yummy gardening everyone!
Golden Pickled Beets (recipe coming soon)
Beet Horseradish Relish (recipe coming soon)
Traditional Pickled Beets (recipe coming soon)
No-Cabbage Rolls (recipe coming soon)
Roasted Root Vegetables (recipe coming soon)
Kvass (recipe coming soon)
References & Further Reading
Just Beet It (https://www.justbeetit.com/) has ton of recipes, nutrition information, history and pretty much everything you could ever want to know about beets.
West Coast Seeds (www.westcoastseeds.com) for everything seed starting, seed sales and timing charts, etc.
T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) Longstanding Manitoba company with a huge variety of seeds as well as trees, shrubs, perennials and gardening accessories.
Veseys Seeds (https://www.veseys.com/ca/)
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (https://www.rareseeds.com/) for specialty and hard to find heirloom seeds. Note this is an American company so check hardiness zones and days to maturity before selecting seeds
Seeds of Diversity Canada "How to Save Your Own Seeds" 2013, Waterloo, ON, Canada
Ulager, Jim "Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener" 2019, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada