Monday, April 23, 2007

How To Grow Beets from Seed & Why You Should

Last spring I experimented and sowed baby beet seeds between rows of onions.

February 2012 Update: You'll find more about growing beets in this new post, Garden Journal 2/25/12: Sorting Through My Seed Stash, Beet Growing Tips, and Planting by the Moon.

I have no idea why I first started growing beets, since I had never eaten one in my life. The only time I had come face to face with any was during childhood, when scary looking, reddish-purple discs would sometimes appear on restaurant salads.

Fortunately my mother was quick to reach over and stab the offending things with her fork, always murmuring "I love beets!" as she popped them into her mouth.

Even if you don't like beets (those scary canned specimens don't count), you should still sow a few rows of beet seeds in your garden this year. Why? Well, just look at this photo of Bull's Blood beet 'greens' overwintered last year in my barely heated Zone 5 homemade greenhouse. Has there been anything so beautiful gracing your salad plate lately? I didn't think so.

Beets are not only very easy to grow but are also extremely good for you. Beets from the garden are like nothing you will find in the supermarket produce aisle. And while I have been known to devour an embarrassingly large plate of Caramelized Beets & Garlic (the only way I ever cook beets), I mainly grow beets for their greens.

Bull's Blood is one of my favorite varieties to grow. Its roots are sweet and tasty, especially when small, and they have lovely pink rings inside. But I recently learned that this popular heirloom is actually grown primarily for its baby leaves, which are ready in as little as 35 days and are, according to my Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, "all the rage in salads."

The folks at High Mowing Organic Seeds claim that they're organic gardening pioneer "Eliot Coleman's choice for a red leaf in winter harvest salad mixes." I had no idea I was so chic.

Beets come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and even colors. Along with my beloved Bull's Blood, this year I'm growing several different other types, including three new-to-me heirlooms: Golden, Chioggia, and Flat of Egypt. Not quite ready to grow your own beets? (Why on earth not?) You can often find interesting varieties of beets at farmers' markets.

Direct seeding in the garden is the easiest way to grow beets. They can be grown in most types of soil but prefer that it be deep, well-drained, and includes plenty of organic material, such as compost or aged manure. Too much nitrogen will cause beets to produce lots of greens but little roots.

Soak beet seeds in water for 24 hours before planting to aid germination. Beets prefer cool weather. For an early summer crop, sow seeds in a sunny spot, 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost.
Plant seeds 1/2-inch deep, 2 inches apart if growing for greens, 3 to 4 inches apart if growing for the roots (but you can still harvest the greens, too).

Sow seeds again in late summer for a fall crop. In frost free areas, you can do a third planting in September for a February harvest.

If you prefer a smaller, continuous harvest instead of one big one (and if you're more organized than I am), sow some of your seeds every two weeks instead of all at once.

If you're minding the moon signs, sow beet seeds in the third quarter, under the signs of Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces, Libra, and Capricorn. I plant by the moon as best I can because I need all the help I can get. Astrological Gardening The Ancient Wisdom of Successful Planting & Harvesting by the Stars by Louise Riotte is a great book on the subject.

Good companions for beets: bush beans, the cabbage family, corn, leeks, lettuce, lima beans, onions, and radishes.

Bad companions: mustard and pole beans. Want to learn more about using the natural benefits of plants to protect and support each other? Louise Riotte's Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening is a classic guide with over 500,000 copies in print.

Cluster of beet greens, all sprouted from one seed -

Each beet 'seed' is actually a dried fruit made up of 2 to 6 individual seeds, so seedlings will sprout very close together. Everything in this photo came from one seed cluster.

If you plan to harvest the beet roots as well as the greens, thin the seedlings when they're about 2" high, choosing the best looking one in each cluster. Use scissors to snip the seedlings at soil level so as not to disturb the remaining plant. Be sure to toss the tender young leaves into salads.

Thinning beet greens in the kitchen garden with baby Cary
Thinning beets with Baby Cary back in 2006.

When growing beets for greens, you can thin the plants over time as they grow larger, as pictured above, giving you a bigger harvest.

The weedy raised beet bed supplies goodies for the chickens, me, and the compost bin.

Beets require even moisture, so don't let the soil dry out. Mulch will help keep the soil moist and the beets cool, as well as discourage weeds; I like to use grass clippings. I also sprinkle compost over the newly planted seeds and around the sprouted plants. You can sow your beets next to taller companion plants that will shade the soil, but be sure you don't end up blocking out all the sun (been there, done that).

Harvest beet roots when they're 1½ inches to 3 inches in diameter for optimum flavor, tenderness, and texture. According to The Vegetable Gardener's Bible
(my favorite gardening book for the past 12 years that still teaches me something new every time I open it), to minimize 'bleeding' when removing the greens, which can reduce moisture content in the root, avoid cutting them off. Instead, hold the root in one hand and twist the tops off with the other hand. (I read this tip after cutting the greens off the beets in the photo below.)

A tiny but tasty beet harvest.

One of the best things about homegrown beets is that even if you abuse them, they will still taste delicious. The hardy plants will put up with frosty mornings as well as hot and humid summer days. The beets you see here were planted late and thinned too late. They were also left in the ground until July 31st, so some of them ended up much too big—and looking a little strange.

I then stuffed my poor harvest in a plastic bag and stashed it in the refrigerator for two months because I wanted to save it for my mother's upcoming visit. I was sure the beets would be tough and woody (not to mention half rotten), but I should have known better—beets from the garden do not hold a grudge. They were wonderful.

More posts about some of my favorite things to grow:
Favorite Heirloom Tomatoes to Grow—Mine and Yours
Growing Onions in the Garden
Growing Short Day Onion Varieties from Purchased Plants
Harvesting Spring Onions Grown from Purchased Plants
Endive and Escarole in the Kitchen and Garden
Growing Lemon Cucumbers from Seed
Growing Miniature White Cucumbers from Seed
My Favorite Heirloom Carrots (so far) to Grow from Seed: Parisienne

How to Grow Swiss Chard from Seed
How To Grow Nero di Toscana Cabbage (also called Dinosaur Kale, Lacinato Kale, Tuscan Kale, Cavalo Nero) and What to do with It
How To Grow Your Own Gourmet Lettuce from Seed (It's easy!)
How To Grow Arugula from Seed in Less than a Month
Tips for Growing & Using Rosemary Year Round

Recommended Reading: The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Ed Smith. This has been my favorite gardening book since it was published in 2000, and I highly recommend it for kitchen gardeners of all levels.

©, the sprouting foodie farm blog where you know the beet goes on.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What's Growin' On: 4/3/07

It's A Good Thing They're So Cute

Realization Of The Day:
Lambing season has taken over my life!

Thirty-seven lambs born on the farm in less than a month, and not a single tomato, pepper, or basil seed started. Last year at this time, I was two weeks away from setting out tomato plants. (If you'd like to see what else was going on last year in my garden, simply click on the monthly archive links in the sidebar of the homepage).

This is usually when I start digging through the chest freezers, pulling out all the sweet peppers and tomatoes I've been hoarding through winter so we can make room for the next harvest (and usually finding all sorts of forgotten stuff in the process). For now everything in the freezer is staying right where it is.

The good news is that at this rate lambing season will be over soon, and I'll hopefully have more time to devote to the garden. I have managed to direct seed several beds with various spring veggies (and I even wrote down what I planted where!), so we won't have to live on just lamb chops and lamb burgers this summer. (Yes, we do eat some our grass-fed lambs. As Joe puts it, "Why go to all this trouble if we're not going to eat them?" And while my garden wouldn't be the same without all that amazing sheep manure--which trumps cow and horse manure by miles--I love the fact that we are able to raise flavorful, all-natural meat for our table, especially since it is far better than what you usually find at the supermarket--not to mention that it hasn't been traveled all the way from the other side of the world.)

I did see clumps of volunteer tomato seedlings poking up in a few of the raised beds the other day. This has already been a year of streamlining and experimenting, so now I'm thinking I might just be able to thin them out, then transplant some of them either into small containers (I use recycled styrofoam cups) or straight into the garden once they're a few inches tall. I have no idea what variety they are, but at this point I'd be ecstatic with anything as long as it's a ripe tomato.

From Garden To Table:
The two dozen Swiss chard plants that overwintered in the greenhouse have gone crazy. I swear they get bigger by the hour. I've been tossing the chopped leaves and colorful stems (use them like celery) into big salads every night, along with the latest crop of volunteer baby arugula (My Permanent Arugula Plot Plan has been a huge success! One of these days I hope to write more about it; in the meantime, click here to read my previous post that tells how you can go from seed to salad bowl in less than a month--no matter where you live).

Swiss chard is a 'cut and come again' vegetable, which means if you harvest just the outer leaves, the plant will keep producing new ones. Just a few of these both heat- and cold-tolerant plants can provide you with plenty of bounty for months.

Beyond The Garden Gate:
The dogwoods are are in bloom, and the steep hillsides of our little valley are full of happy white flowers. Last year I thought we had the best blooming dogwood season ever, but I think we've already topped it this spring.

Weather Report:
Yesterday it was 84 degrees and sunny. This morning started out much the same; by the time I was done feeding hay and doing chores I was drenched with sweat. Now as I type this at two in the afternoon, there is thunder booming overhead, a heavy rain is pelting on our old tin roof, and hailstones the size of fat peas are bouncing as they land on the lawn. Thursday night there is a chance of snow. Whenever I think our weather couldn't get any crazier, it somehow manages to do just that. And now the power has blinked off. I think I'd better go make sure none of those cute baby lambs are being swooped up and carried off by the blustery winds.