Beta vulgaris var. rapacea
Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz 1885
Kurt Stubers Online Library
Beetroot or beet is a well-known root crop. They are available in many shapes (long, short globe and straight rooted) and colours (purple, golden, white & candy striped). Interestingly beets are mature before carrots, even though they have a larger root mass. Beets are carefree and with good soil they’ll likely grow just about anywhere.
Domesticated beetroot evolved from wild sea-beet, which grows along the seashore of Europe and Asia. It is now widely cultivated in Europe and America. Both the root and the leaves are eaten, some even prefer beetroot leaves to spinach.
Beetroot (Beta vulgaris) belongs to the beet or goosefoot family (Chenopodidae). This family includes Good King Henry, Orache & Fat Hen vegetables. This includes the spinach and swiss chard vegetables – so watch out! Your beet and spinach can cross-pollinate!
Beets contain the nitrogen-containing anthocyanin (red pigment), betanin, which is used as a food colouring (this is what traditionally gave red velvet cakes their gorgeous colour).
Beet seeds are planted directly into the garden once the soil is warm enough, since they do not transplant well. Beets can be raised all year round in SA and Zone 7 gardens because the ground stays warm enough during winter and we do not get snow. Beets grown in winter will take longer to set, due to the reduced amount of light and shorter day lengths in winter as compared to summer.
Long rooted and large globe beets should be planted in the garden with soil dug over at least 30cm deep. These are designated as your main crop. Short rooted, small globe varieties or baby varieties can be grown in pots that are at least 20cm deep and will supply beets earlier than the main crop.
Beets in my garden take 2-3 months to set a mature root and lots of extra potassium (potash) added to the soil (as I have savannah soil). Else you will have bottle-brushes instead of beet. Potash is added in a for-nightly (summer) to monthly (winter) basis. Like carrots, beets can be fertilised during their growing stage every second week, but once the roots have set, do not fertilise, as this will create split roots. Potash can be added regardless of root set or not – which makes for really useful stuff!
Succession Diverse Planting
In the previous version of this post I had a section on succession planting. But due to my more diverse planting schemes I don’t really do succession or use square-foot gardening principles anymore. I tried to combine plants (other than roots) in the carrot/beet plots, but I found that larger plants start to overshadow the beets or completely smother them. This previous season I had some alfalfa seeds plant themselves in my beet patch (which included alternating carrot and onion rows – it is the easiest method to generate diversity as well as keeping harvesting and seeding easy). The alfalfa has an upright, spindly growth habit and thus did not bother the beets at all. Alfalfa is also a green manure and soil builder so I just left it with the beets. Come harvest time and the beet roots were beautiful! 😙 I really do think that the alfalfa had something to do with this and next season I am incorporating more alfalfa plants into my other plots! 😎
Other Beet Tips
Some people say to be careful when you harvest the beet to minimise bleeding (and everything being red), but I have found that fresh beets do not bleed nearly as much as store-bought beets.
As with carrots, once the beets start to set their roots – cover the exposed root with soil, this prevents ‘brown shoulders’ on the root due to browning on the top of the root when it is subjected to sunlight.
Dead and damaged leaves can be removed. Sometimes when it is very hot and the beets are exposed to a lot of sunlight their leaves will get red blotches – this is a defence mechanism of the plant to decrease sunlight and ‘sunburn’ – so do not worry if you see this.
If seedlings are grown next to larger crops – just look out for the larger crop leaves not smacking the seedlings on the head! – especially when the wind blows or during rain. Remove any leaves that are in danger of hitting seedlings or is already lying atop seedlings, since this smothers, damages and sometimes kills seedlings.
Harvesting & Storing
Beets are stored the same way as carrots. Beets are pulled from the ground by grabbing the leaves close to the root and turning the root while you pull it out. Usually beetroots are easier to lift than carrot roots, since the taproot is a lot smaller. But, if the root is being suborn, do not pull too hard or the root will break in half! Rather dig out or loosen some of the soil around the root and then remove.
In mild winter areas the beets can be left in the ground and use as needed.
Long term storage: If you can, beets can be stored in trays/boxes containing sand for winter usage. After washing the beets, the leaves are trimmed to 1cm from the root, then place them next to one another (not touching) in a tray filled with dampened sterile/clean river sand. Layer the sand and beets singly. The tray is sealed and stored in a cool, frost-free (and I suppose dark) place.
More practically, you can blanch the beets. After blanching dry the beets – make sure they are dry (leave for a few hours to dry) and then store in the refrigerator – or else you’ll have mushy beets when you cook them from not-properly-dried-before-frozen beets.
Sort term storage: Fresh beets can be kept at room temperature for 3-4 days, after 3 days at room temperature or just a day in the fridge, they start to shrivel. Vacuum packing beets with a few drops of water, allows them to keep for up to a week in the fridge. The best place for short term storage of beets, is to just leave it in the ground until needed, especially if you have mild winters. Large beets (and carrots), contrary to popular belief, are not tough – I have had beets larger than a tennis ball (350g) that were still sweet and tender. They become tough from standing on the market shelf for too long.
Seed Collection & Storage
Beets also flower in their second ‘summer’ in the ground. Now this can be in the same season/year (As our year in SA is flanked by summer and spring – Summer in Jan-Mar and Spring in Sep-Dec). Beets flower after they were exposed to a cold period. The beets stored in sand can be replanted in spring and will flower. Flowers are wind-pollinated.
Beet varieties will cross pollinate (such as yellow x purple, straight x globe ect). They can also cross-pollinate with some other members of the Chenopodiaceae family, such as spinach and swiss-chard. So cover the flowers with netting/fleece and hand pollinate those you desire or just let the wind do that for you. The seeds are ready for collection after they have dried and the flower stem has become brittle. The seeds should be harvested in the protective netting or bag used to isolate them from other Chenopodiaceae members, as the seeds easily scatter.
Before planting, the seeds are soaked in water overnight and the maximum germination soil temperature is 29oC (85oF) and the minimum is 4oC (40oF).
Starke Ayres Detroit Dark Red: Large globe (purple) rooted beets. This is a good variety for hot and dry climates.
Franchi Candy Striped Beets (Chioggia): These are smaller globe rooted varieties with white and pink stripes. The Detroit Dark Red has superior flavour to these, but they make gardening interesting. These set about a month quicker than the Detroit ones.