The Secret to Growing Beets: Five Tips for Success
Do you have trouble growing beets? You’re not alone. Here are five tips for getting fresh-from-the-garden beets on your table.
Of all the mistakes that are made growing beets, failing to thin seedlings is probably the most common. Even if you’re obsessive about seed spacing as you sow, you’ll still need to thin once seedlings emerge. Why? What you get in most beet seed packets is actually a seed capsule that contains about 2 to 6 viable seeds! Among common garden plants, this “perispermic” seed structure is unique to Beta vulgaris, so it’s little wonder that many gardeners overlook thinning their beet rows. And crowded beets aren’t happy beets — you’ll get plenty of beet tops, but only spindly roots beneath the soil.
You can allow your seedlings to get about 5 inches tall before you thin. Rather than thinning by pulling, cut off the tops of the unwanted seedlings; this prevents injury to the root of the desired plants, and you get to eat a delicious reward of young beet leaves! Spacing between beets should be no less than 3 inches for baby-size roots, or 5-6 inches for larger roots.
2) Boron supplementation
Beets are believed to have originated along the coasts of the Mediterranean, which have abundant boron in the soil thanks to sea spray. This ancestral dependence on adequate soil boron remains in current beet cultivars – without sufficient boron, beet growth suffers and the roots develop internal black spots. You can add boron to your soil by dissolving 1 Tablespoon of Borax (yes, 20 Mule Team from the detergent aisle works) into a 6 quart watering can, then sprinkling it evenly over a 100 foot row (a one time application, preferably at planting). By the way, this prescription is great for other boron-needy plants like broccoli and brussel sprouts, too!
(CAUTION: Don’t think more boron is better! Micronutrients like boron are exactly that – needed in small amounts. It doesn’t take much boron to tip the scales over to toxicity, so don’t use more or your plants will suffer!).
3) Evaluate your soil
Since we’re already talking about supplementing with boron, do you know the levels of other nutrients in your soil? Check with your local cooperative extension office – many offer free soil testing or testing at a much-reduced cost. Like any garden veggie, beets won’t grow well in exhausted soil, and it may be time to amend your soil with organic fertilizers specific to your garden’s deficiency. A packet of seeds is cheap, but your time is priceless, so insure your success by knowing your soil.
4) Sow for cold harvests
Many gardeners sow beets in the spring, but beets truly shine when planted at summer’s end for fall and winter harvests. The cool and wet conditions of early spring make beet seedlings more susceptible to damping off. Further, spring-sown beets will reach maturity during the heat of summer, resulting in beets that are blander in color and taste. Beets produce their own sweet “antifreeze” during fall and winter, as the colder temperatures favor sugar production. So by sowing seeds in late summer, you’ll not only have a better chance of your beet seedlings surviving, but your harvests will also taste better and be more colorful, too!
5) Keep soil evenly moist
Although the ideal time to harvest beets may be fall and winter, getting seeds to germinate in dry and hot summer conditions can pose a problem. A hard crust of soil tends to form at the top of summer seed beds, which can be impenetrable to young seedlings as they push toward the soil surface. Keep seed beds consistently moist during the first week after sowing (watering at least daily). Once a crust forms on the soil surface, it is hard to remove, so as insurance I also add a layer of potting mix over my seeds – the seedlings have no difficulty popping through the loose mixture, and it also marks exactly where my seeds were planted to make weeding easier!
Don’t forget about water once your beets get growing. Fluctuations in moisture can cause roots to become woody or crack, so provide water during dry spells to promote a palatable and consistent harvest.
Now, get growing everyone!