Beets are one of the easiest vegetables you can grow. They're almost never troubled by pests or disease. They don't need staking, pruning or fussing. Just sow the seeds and let the plants grow for about 6-8 weeks. You can harvest the roots at any time between midsummer and late fall.
Beets should be planted from seed, directly into the garden. Each beet seed is actually a hard little cluster of 2 to 4 seeds. It takes several days or even a week for the outer seed coat to soften and allow the seeds inside to germinate. It's important to keep the soil consistently moist during this period. Once the seeds have germinated, you will need to thin out (and eat!) some of the extra seedlings. Ideally you'll wind up with about 9 plants per square foot.
Like most vegetables, beets prefer growing in full sun and they like to get about 1" of water each week. Beets are cold tolerant, so they can be planted in early spring, several weeks before the last frost date. To keep the soil consistently moist during germination, cover the area with row cover until the seedlings break the soil surface.
Seedlings for red and gold beets. Photo: Ann Whitman
Beets can be harvested at any time. For baby beets, harvest when the root is no more than 1 or 2 inches in diameter. Cook the leaves as well as the roots — all parts of the plant are delicious. If you want the most food for the garden space, wait until the root has filled out to several inches in diameter. Depending on the variety, most beets will still be tender and flavorful, even when the root measures 4 or 5 inches across.
Early season crops such as lettuce and peas can be replaced by a midsummer planting of beets. A fall crop of beets will tolerate temperatures down to about 20 degrees. As temperatures continue to fall, you can cover the area with row cover fabric to prevent the roots from freezing. Beets can also be harvested and stored indoors for a month or more. Trim off the leaves, keeping a ½" tuft of stems at the top of the root. Gently brush off any soil, put the beets into a plastic bag (do not seal it up), and store them in your refrigerator crisper.
Beets can be boiled, baked, roasted or pickled. They're also delicious grated raw into salads. For variety, try planting both red and yellow beets. Choggia beets, which are spiraled with red and white, are another delicious option.