Backyard Gardener: Beets for the fall garden

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley Farmers and Gardeners! It is amazing how fast the summer slips away. Many schools and colleges are back in session so I hope everyone got those last minute vacations in before now. As summer slowly fades (I am sure we have plenty of hot days left) our thoughts turn to fall around the home, farm and the garden. Deadheading spent flower, taking a soil test, pulling weeds, last minute painting projects and harvesting herbs and vegetable are just a few of the chores we take care of in August. If you have planted zucchini, you know they are producing abundantly this time of year. If you missed it, August 8 was Sneak a Zucchini onto Your Neighbors Porch Day. So share some of this year’s harvest with neighbors, family and friends alike.

The beet (Beta vulgaris) has been a very popular vegetable recently. Also known as the garden beet, blood turnip or red beet it is in the media spotlight as the main ingredient in several health products touting increased energy levels, stamina, circulation and decreases in blood pressure. The science behind the products are that beets naturally boost the production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide signals the blood vessels in the body to relax and dilate. Beetroot juice can reduce the amount of oxygen you need to perform even low-intensity exercise. Some research suggests it may increase stamina up to 20%. Beet juice sprang onto the scene at the 2012 Summer Olympics where the British team used raw beet juice to enhance their athletic performance. British athlete Mo Farah won the gold in the 10, 000 meter race and the team touted the use of beet juice for an athletic edge.

The beet has been grown since ancient times but the Greeks actually cultivated it for the greens as well as using it in medicine. The large beet leaves and stalks were consumed like Swiss chard which is related to beets. This beet had a thin taproots similar to a carrot. The modern beet was developed by Northern Europe. It thrived in cool weather and stored well and quickly became popular as the main ingredient in a warming, nutrient-packed soup called borscht. Dozens of recipes were created adding meat, other vegetables and sometimes grains. It did not become an internationally popular food until French chefs recognized the appeal of roasted beets in the 1800s.

My favorite is pickled beets, but many of us have a love hate relationship with this root crop. Beets contain a substance called geosmin, which give them an earthy taste (yes, a little like dirt). Geosmin is also what you smell in the spring after plowing or disking fields and following a spring rain. Personally, I love the sweet and earthy flavor of beets but some people shy away from this vegetable.

Beets are a great addition to the fall garden and are a popular cool season root crop for production and marketing in West Virginia. Beets are closely related to spinach and Swiss chard vegetables. Like most root crops, beets do best in a light textured, deep soil without stones. Raised beds, which permit the soil to be relatively deep and loose, are well suited for root vegetables. Beets should be seeded early or late enough in the year to grow under cool weather conditions which favors both yield and quality.

Beet roots are actually enlarged portions of the stem called the hypocotyl. Most modern varieties having a round shape but there are some beet cultivars which have a cylindrical shaped root. Some beets also have edible foliage and are eaten as greens. Beets are sensitive to acidic soils and grow best in a soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8. Add lime to sweeten up soils with a pH under 6.0.

Beets can be either direct-seeded or transplanted. Beet “seeds” are actually fruits containing several seeds and several seedlings may grow from each fruit. This is why beets are typically thinned to one plant. Seeding depth is important with beets. Plant seeds about 1/2 inch deep and one inch apart and thin to one plant every 3 inches. Plant rows 12-18 inches apart. Poor stands are often caused by planting too deeply or the soil crusting over after a heavy rain. The seedlings may emerge over a relatively long period of time, making a stand of different sizes and ages of seedlings. Beets should be sown beginning 6 weeks before the last spring frost and in August for fall beets in West Virginia. Beets have extremely shallow roots, so frequent shallow cultivation is important because they compete poorly with weeds.

Some recommended varieties include Early Wonder Tall Top, Bull’s Blood, Kestrel, Red Ace, Pacemaker III and Touchstone Gold. Many gardeners want to grow beets for salad greens, so Extension recommends a vigorous variety called Green Top Bunching variety. Most varieties mature in 45-60 days and have the deep red color we associate with beets, which is accentuated in cooler weather. However, there are some pink and gold colored varieties.

Beets can be harvested at any stage in which color is optimum. Baby beets are usually harvested 36-40 days after sowing. Baby beet leaves are often harvested as cut greens for salads. For mature harvest, beets should be approximately the size of a golf ball. This is the size often used for cooking, pickling or canning as whole beets. Beets enlarge rapidly to three inches with adequate moisture and space and many larger than three inches may become tough and fibrous. The beets can be gently dug from the soil with a fork or simply pulled. Fall/winter beets should be dug before the ground freezes.

If they are being placed in storage, the tops can be trimmed and the beets can be lightly washed of soil and placed in boxes or bins until use or market. Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office at 304-424-1960 with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!