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Backyard Gardener: Beets — a popular root crop for gardens

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley Farmers and Gardeners! May has arrived as we prepare to plant all the warm season favorites. Considering the price of vegetables in the supermarket, you can save quite a t of money by planting a small garden.

I know everyone has their favorites but choose a variety with some disease resistance. Select healthy plants which are short and stocky with a good dark green color. Once soil temperatures are above 60 degrees, set transplants in the garden and direct seed squash, cucumber, melons and sweet corn.

We will have vegetable and flower transplants for sale at the annual Wood County Master Gardener Spring Seminar and Plant Sale next Saturday, May 14, starting at 10 a.m. The seminar will be held again at Bicentennial Park on Market Street.

Our main speaker is Jon Neff from Bob’s Market and Greenhouse. Join us for a great educational opportunity and lots of fun.

This week I want to talk about growing beets (Beta vulgaris). They are a popular cool season root crop for gardeners in West Virginia. Beets are closely related to spinach and Swiss chard and are a great source of vitamins A, C and folate.

Both the root and the leaves are edible. Turnip greens can be cooked or used in salads. My favorite is pickled beets, harvesting them when they are small. Roots are red, purple, golden or white, and either round or cylindrical. Beets are cool-season crops but are fairly heat tolerant.

A couple fun facts about beets. Beets can help you detox. The betalin compound in beets, which gives beets their color, helps capture toxins in the body and flush them out of the body through the urinary tract. In Australia, pickled beets are often put on hamburgers. They can’t find any pickles?

We all know how beet juice will stain things red. Betanin, which is derived from beetroots, is used to color tomato paste, sauces, candy, breakfast cereals, ice cream, jams, and jellies.

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 can be harvested as small vegetables, often referred to as baby vegetables.

Beets grow best in a soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8. Beet seeds are actually fruits containing several seeds. Thus, when seeded, beets are typically thinned to one plant. Each seed is planted 1-2 inches apart and thinned to one plant every 3 inches. Beets can be either direct-seeded or transplanted. Beets should be sown beginning 6 weeks before the last spring frost and in August for fall beets in West Virginia.

Plant seeds about 1/2 inch deep and one inch apart. Allow 12 to 18 inches between rows. Poor stands are often the result of planting too deeply or the soil’s crusting after a heavy rain. Hand thinning is almost always necessary. The seedlings should be thinned to 1 to 3 inches apart. If thinning is delayed until the plants are 3 inches tall, those removed may be cooked greens, similar to spinach.

If the objective is to harvest beet greens for a salad mix, the beets can be broadcast-seeded over a raised bed. When the leaves are approximately 2 inches long, they can be harvested.

Frequent shallow cultivation is important because beets compete poorly with weeds, especially when small. Because beets have extremely shallow roots, hand weeding and early, frequent and shallow cultivation are the most effective methods of controlling weeds in the rows. Deep cultivation after the weeds are large damages the beet roots.

Selecting suitable varieties is a critical decision for any gardener. Here are some recommended beet varieties for West Virginia. Early Wonder Tall Top (45 Days) is a very early beet with edible leaves and good for salads. Bull’s Blood (60) has dark red foliage and is excellent for beet greens. Chioggia Guardsmark (60 Days) has candy-cane striping and is very sweet. Kestrel (53 Days) is an excellent beet for baby beet production. Red Ace (53 Days) is an early, high-sugar beet. Pacemaker III (53 Days) is a high-sugar, uniform beet with dark red color. Touchstone Gold (54 days) is a uniform golden color beet and finally Cylindra60 is a long, cylindrical beet.

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. The beets can be gently dug from the soil with a fork or simply pulled.

When harvesting beets, separate the green tops from the roots leaving an inch of stem on the beet. Beets larger than 3 inches in diameter are often fibrous and woody. Beet greens are packed with nutritional value but must be separately prepared.

Upon storage the greens will quickly draw the moisture from the root greatly reducing flavor and the beets will become shriveled. Leave a one-inch stem and the taproot intact to retain moisture and nutrients. After separating, beets store well for about a week in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator.

Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office 304-424-1960 or e-mail me at jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

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