When to Grow Beets
Spring: Beets are what are called “half-hardy” vegetables. They are not quite as tough as broccoli or Chinese cabbage, but they can handle light frosts and cool temperatures for a short period. In the spring you can get seed to germinate with air temperatures as low as 40 degrees, but the soil temperature should be at least 45 degrees; 50 degrees is better. Beets planted in higher temperatures are going to germinate faster and grow faster.
Planting in Successions: Beets are the kind of crop that is best planted in small successions over a period of weeks in the spring and fall. If you plant a 25-foot row of beets all at once, you have all those beets ready for harvest all at the same time. It is better to spread that harvest period out so you can enjoy them longer. Beets can be sown in two or three successions at about three-week intervals to ensure a continuous harvest until late spring.
Summer: The problem with beets is that they don’t like being too hot. In temperatures over 80 degrees they tend to taste bitter and the roots become woody. That is why you want to plant beets as early as you can in your area so you can enjoy the harvest right up to the time the temperatures become too hot.
Fall: Then plant beets again in late summer for fall harvest. Beets are not harmed by spring and fall frosts. Beets can be sown in two or three successions at about three-week intervals to ensure a continuous harvest until the first hard freeze. In the fall the last sowing needs to be early enough before the plants are hit with a severe freeze that destroys the tops.
Where to Plant Beets
Light Requirements: Beets will do best in full sun, but unlike many other vegetables beets can be planted in partial shade.
Soil Requirements: Since beets are a root crop, they grow best in soils that are light and that drain well. They do not do well in heavy clay soil or soil with lots of rocks in it. If you have a heavy clay soil, mix in some chopped leaves and/or some sphagnum peat moss down 6 to 8 inches before planting.
Beets are somewhat unusual among the common garden vegetables preferring a soil that is less acid, and even enjoying a slightly alkaline soil; something between 6.5 and 7.5. If you try to grow beets in soil that is too acidic they can suffer from black spot, and be bitter and stunted.
Soils in new gardens and even soils in many established gardens usually lack much of the microbial life found in healthy soils in the woods or in undisturbed prairies. Good soil needs organic material added year in and year. There is now a new soil amendment the actually contains all the common strains of bacteria and other microscopic critters found in good soil. The quality of your beets will be directly related to the quality of the soil in which they grow.
How to Plant Beets
Beets normally grow with half of the root bulb above the surface so don't think you have to plant the seeds deeply. In cool weather they'll germinate within about two weeks. In warmer weather, they will pop up in about a week. Early beets will be planted about ½ inch deep and then as the season progresses plant the next successions a little deeper till you get to 1 inch deep. The same depth occurs in the fall starting in the warm period at 1 inch, and planting the last succession at ½ inch.
Spacing: The goal is to have the mature beet plants from 2 to three inches apart from each other in all directions. You want the leaves of the mature plants to be overlapping slightly; enough to shade the soil and keep it cooler.
Whether you plant in single rows or in wide rows, plant the seed so it is about 1 inch apart in all directions. Experienced gardeners, using the intensive planting method will simply broadcast the seed over two or three square feet of raised bed and then thin the seedlings to get to the proper spacing between plants. This system takes much less time.
1. Wait until the soil is fairly dry and can be dug without making sticky clumps of soil. Prepare the planting area by digging into the soil from 6 to 8 inches deep with a trowel or shovel. Turn over the soil to loosen it, breaking up any clumps and removing rocks and debris. This is a good time to sprinkle some all-purpose, slow-acting granular fertilizer on the soil and mix it in. Smooth and level the planting area.
2. Trace a shallow indentation in the soil with a stick or pencil to guide planting. Then sow the seeds by dribbling them through your thumb and forefinger into the indented rows. OR, scatter the seeds over the designated area. Cover them with a thin layer of soil, sand, vermiculite or peat moss mixed with a little soil so that they are only about 1/4 inch deep. They will germinate as long as the soil temperature is as high as 45° F.
3. Whether you plant a single row or a wider area, make certain that the seeds and soil remains moist for seed germination.
Growing from Seed
Beets are always planted from seed. They do not transplant easily as seedlings because of their taproot; although it can be done.
Rows vs. Beds: Beets are ideal vegetables for planting in wide rows in a raised bed. Planting beets in a single row wastes perfectly good growing area. A wide row with three or four single rows planted close together makes good use of growing space and produces fine beets.
When to plant seed: Beets require 50 to 55 days to first reach harvestable size (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches diameter), although you will be eating greens before that. The last sowing should be early enough to allow enough time for beet roots to enlarge before the high heat of summer. Then again in the fall the last sowing needs to be early enough before they are hit with a severe freeze that destroys the plant tops.
Soil Trick: Beets do best in sandy soil but few of us have sandy soil. So even if your soil is healthy loam and contains lots of organic matter, if you mix a few handfuls of builder’s sand in every square foot of the soil where the beets will be planted, you will have fewer problems with misshapen roots.
Soaking Seed: Beets can be slow to germinate under normal conditions, and particularly so in the early spring. One way to speed things up is to soak beet seeds over night before planting. We use warm water with just a touch of liquid kelp. If you don’t have kelp the soaking still benefits. Swish them around a few times to make sure the air bubbles get out of the seed clumps. Don’t soak them for more than 12 hours or so.
Rolling Pin Trick: Since the seeds you get in the seed packet are really clumps of 4 or 5 individual seeds, you can save some time on thinning if you break up the clumps before you plant. Simply place the beet seeds on a cutting board or hard surface and very lightly roll the seeds with a rolling pin or other round utensil. Be gentle because you can damage the seeds if you are too energetic.
Radish seed trick: Since the beet seeds do seem to take forever to germinate, sometimes it is difficult to remember where you planted the beets as you are planting other vegetables in the same area of the garden. A few faster germinating radish seeds mixed with the beet seeds help mark the row or bed of beets.
Amendments In Planting or Transplanting
There are a number of products at the garden center that will help your newly planted or transplanted plants deal better with the stress inherent in the planting process. All healthy plants have beneficial fungi, called mycorrhizal fungi, living on their roots. You can buy these valuable additions to your plant’s ecosystem. See the file describing Using Micorrhizae When Planting.
In addition, there are a number of products such as seaweed, compost tea, and beneficial soil microbes that when added to the planting process will help your newly established plants get going faster. See the file New Technology In Plant Growth Activators
Basics For Fall Planting
While beets are usually advertised to reach maturity in 50 to 55 days, those figures are specifically for spring planting. Vegetables, including beets, planted for fall harvest take longer to reach maturity because the days are getting shorter and the air and soil is getting progressively cooler. Beets make a great fall crop because they can handle the light frosts that usually mean the end to tomatoes and peppers and other tender vegetables. Beets will remain tasty and harvestable right up until the soil freezes hard which is usually 6 to 10 weeks after that first frost.
Calculate when you think you will have the ground freezing hard, and back off 60 or 65 days for the date of the last fall succession planting of beets. Then move back another 3 weeks, and again another 3 weeks for the first planting of fall beets.
Fall beets can use some slow release granular fertilizer in the soil when they are planted and maybe one foliar spray of liquid fertilizer and kelp a month or so later. That should cover the feeding needs for the fall beets.
Planting In Containers
Beets can be planted in containers as long as the containers are eight to 12 inches deep. The deeper the container, the better for encouraging healthy root development. Be certain the container has a drainage hole to eliminate excess water. Use a soiless mix and water often to assure the container never gets dried out. If you do not have enough planting mix, what is available may be mixed with good, loamy topsoil.
Some container varieties are: Baby Canning and Spinel Baby Beets. Both are well suited for growing in containers. Pick them when they are about the size of a golf ball.