How To Grow Organic Beets?
INTERESTING BEET FACTOIDS
- Growing beets as food is traceable to the Mediterranean as far back as 2000 B.C.
- In the 1800’s, agricultural scientists in Germany developed the sugar beet. Growing white-colored sugar beets has become a primary source of white sugar (sucrose), along with sugar cane.
- The primary beets grown in gardens for eating are known as “garden” beets. Eastern Europeans are especially fond of growing beets for “borsch, ” a beet-based soup.
- Garden beets are close relatives to Spinach and Chard.
WHEN TO PLANT
- Beets are a hardy vegetable and can be planted one full month before your last frost date or as soon as you are able to work the soil
- Garden beets are “cold-hardy” plants . Seeds can be planted directly into the garden as early as 4 weeks before your last frost date.
- If your springs are wet and cold, it is critical you do not plant if your soil is still holding water. The seeds will not germinate in water-logged soil.
- For a spring crop, plant beets as soon as the soil dries out and you can work the soil; typically from March to mid-May, depending on your climate.
- Most beet varieties generally take 50 to 55 days to mature.
- For continuous harvest, successively plant every two weeks into early summer or up to soil temperatures of 65°F. Beets grow best in soil temperatures of 60° to 65°F.
- Planting beets consecutively rather than as one big crop will provide smaller, more tender beets throughout the season.
- Temperatures of 75°F or greater can cause beet plants to bolt (go to seed).
- For a fall harvest, begin planting again 8 weeks before your first expected frost date.
- If you live in a mild-winter area, beets can be planted in the fall with consecutive plantings throughout winter and into spring.
WHERE TO PLANT
- Planting seeds in full sun will help your beet plants to establish better roots.
- If you prefer beet greens, planting in partial shade will produce a higher yield of leafy greens.
- Beets prefer sandy soil rich in organic matter that retains moisture, yet drains well enough to prevent standing water.
PREPARING THE SOIL
- Like any root crop, you’ll get the best results planting in soil that is root and rock-free. Loose soil is critical for proper development of the roots.
- If all you have is rocky soil, sift the planting area a minimum of 6 “ down. For best results, loosen your soil down 15″ to 18″.
- If your soil is heavy clay, hard, or alkaline, mix in 2 to 4 inches of compost into the top 6″ of soil.
- The optimum pH range is between 6 and 6.5. Beets do not grow well in highly acidic soil (a pH lower than 6).
- Beets require more Boron than most plants, although they use it inefficiently. Tough, hard black areas in the beet roots indicate boron deficiency. Boron is less available to the plant in soils with high pH and high organic matter.
- Adding compost to your soil may help. You might also try Organic Garden Miracle™, a liquid organic leaf spray fertilizer with traces of boron in it. It’s primary function is to increase a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the air and soil to increase a plant’s sugar. It appears to improve not just plant size and health, we’ve also noticed an improvement in the flavor of any vegetable we’ve used it on.
- Use only well-composted manure. Manure that is too fresh can cause forked roots.
- Sprinkle and till in a bit of wood ash (out of your woodstove or fire pit), if handy. Its rich supply of potassium enhances root growth.
SEEDS AND GERMINATION
- Just before planting seeds, put them in the refrigerator over night; this tells the seeds it’s time to grow.
- Next, soak the beet seeds for 12 hours to stimulate germination. This is especially important in late summer when the weather is hot and precipitation is sparse.
- Temperatures of 70-85°F create fast germination (5-7 days), although seeds will germinate in temperatures as low as 41°F (42 days).
- Once you’ve initially purchased your beet seeds, they should last up to 4 years.
GETTING STARTED INDOORS (and transplanting)
- Although beets can be started indoors, we don’t recommend it for a couple reasons…
- First, being a cool weather crop, beets can be consecutively planted very early in the season. An indoor start is
not necessary to getting a good harvest.
- Second, beets are a root crop and root crops do best when their roots are left undisturbed. It may set beets back 2 weeks when they’re transplanted.
- However, if you really want to start your seeds indoors, get an early enough start to make it worth your while.
- Start beets indoors 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date.
- Plant seeds ½” deep in seed trays or in individual cells. Press the soil down lightly.
- Because each beet “seed” is actually a fruit which contains up to 8 true seeds, you will see a cluster of seedlings develop for every seed you plant.
- Carefully thin clusters to one seedling by pinching off unwanted seedlings at ground level.
- For best results, harden off your seedlings towards the end of frost (to “harden off” means to take your plants outside during the daytime).
- When transplanting to your garden, trim the wispy part of the root so that will be easy to plant.
PLANTING SEEDS DIRECTLY INTO YOUR GARDEN
- When you stagger plantings during the growing season you provide an extended harvest.
- Seed depth ½” – seeds 1” – 2” apart – Row spacing: Minimum of 12″ between rows. You can plant triple rows 12″ apart, then leave 36″ to 48″ to the next triple row.
- Press the soil down firmly (using the back of a hoe works) to make sure the soil is contacting the seeds. The sandier the soil, the tighter the packing is needed.
- As an aid to seed germination in heavier soils, cover the seeds with dampened vermiculite, peat moss, or some other non-crusting material. This will keep the seed moist and warm, but won’t inhibit it from breaking through the surface.
- Because each beet seed is actually a “fruit” which contains 2-6 true seeds; you will see a cluster of seedlings develop for every seed you plant.
- When beet seedlings are around 1” tall, thin each cluster to one seedling per every 3″ by pinching off the unwanted seedlings at ground level. The small, tender leaves can be used in salads.
- Once the seedlings reach 4″ to 6” tall, thin plants to 4″ to 6” apart.
- When the beet root has reached 1” in diameter, do a final thinning by harvesting every other plant (these will provide the first harvest).
- Use straw mulch, grass clippings, or shredded leaves to maintain even moisture and keep the soil temperature below 65°F; apply a compost tea (a mixture of water and compost) monthly.
- Water your plants well before applying mulch
- In the early growth stages, weed control is vitally important to beet establishment; hand weed, and be careful not to damage beet roots; it may be necessary clip the close weeds with a scissor.
GROWING YOUR BEETS
- Competition with weeds and uneven watering can make beets stringy and tough.
- Too much nitrogen will encourage top growth at the expense of root development.
- When beets mature in warm weather, they are lighter-colored, have less sugar and have more pronounced color-zoning in the roots. The best color and flavor develop under cool conditions and bright sun.
- Fluctuating weather conditions produce white zone rings in roots.
- Beets are biennials. Normally, they produce an enlarged root during their first season; then after over-wintering they produce a flower stalk.
- If beets experience two to three weeks of temperatures below 45°F – after they have formed several true leaves during their first season – a flower stalk may grow prematurely.
WEEDING, & MULCHING
- Weed control is vital in establishment of beets, especially in the early stages. Hand weed, being careful not to disturb or damage beet roots.
- Root crops grow slowly for the first few weeks after planting and cannot successfully compete with weeds.
- Frequent, shallow cultivation will control the weeds and keep the surface of the soil loose.
- The roots of the root crops are very close to the surface of the soil, so it is important not to cultivate too deeply. Cultivate just deeply enough to cut the weeds off below the surface.
- Deep cultivation after the weeds are large damages the beet roots.
- Use about 1” of mulch to help maintain even moisture, suppress weeds, and protect from hot spells.
- Water your plants well before applying mulch.
- Spread a layer of straw, grass clippings, or shredded leaves around the base of your beet plants.
- Mint is effective as live mulch around beets – and helps to deter pests.
- Consistent watering keeps beets tender and growth continual.
- If heavy rain is predicted before plants emerge, place a row cover over them. This will prevent soil from crusting over, which can prevent proper growth and slow the harvest.
- Supply your plants 1” of water weekly.
- Under-watering beets will cause the roots to become tough and crack and the plants will bolt to seed.
COMPANION PLANTING / ROTATION
- Planting beets where beans grew the previous year will benefit the plants. All beans enrich the soil with nitrogen-fixing (from the air), improving the conditions for whatever crop you plant after the beans are finished.
- Beets do not grow well near walnut trees.
- Garlic improves growth and flavor of beet plants.
- Radishes are a deterrent against cucumber beetles and rust flies, and leaf miners.
- Sage deters unwanted pests from your beets – and they benefit each other your garden.
- Runner or pole beans and beets stunt each others growth.
- Beets are closely related to Swiss chard and spinach. Avoid following these crops in rotation.
- Beets are relatively disease and pest free, and even the problems they do have are relatively easy to manage organically.
WHEN TO HARVEST
- Beets can be harvested at any stage of development, from the thinning to the fully mature stage at about 2 to 3″ inches in diameter. As the roots get larger they tend to get more fibrous. Harvest your thinned beets by cooking the small beets and using the greens in salads.
- Beets must be harvested before the ground freezes in the fall.
- Hand pull by pushing the root to the side and pulling it out of the ground. Remove as much dirt as possible. Do not wash unless using immediately.
- If you are removing the entire crop at one time, it may be helpful to use a spading fork to loosen the soil next to the plants before pulling them.
- Cut or twist off the tops of the beets 1” above the root to prevent staining (or bleeding) during cooking.
- For a fall harvest, pull up your beet crop after a hard frost. Beets harvested in fall have stronger colors than spring-planted beets and usually have higher sugar levels.
- Beets can be stored in a “Zip Lock” bag in your refrigerator for several weeks.
- Beets also store well in a root cellar or cool, dark area packed in peat, sand or sawdust with moderate to high humidity – ideally 33° to 35°F with 95% humidity – don’t let them freeze!
- Harvested beets also may be stored in a pit in the ground covered with enough straw to keep them from freezing (that’s what we do).
- Beets can be frozen, canned, pickled, or dried with good results.
- To Freeze — If you choose to freeze your beets, select deep, uniformly-red, tender, young beets for freezing.
- To Can — Beets with a diameter of 1 to 2 inches are preferred for whole packs. Avoid canning beets greater than 3 inches in diameter as they are often tough and fibrous.
PREVENTATIVE AND NATURAL SOLUTIONS TO COMMON PESTS AND PROBLEMS
- Flea Beetles: these small beetles chew small, round holes in cotyledons (first leaves on a plant) and the adult leaves.
- Flea Beetles can spread disease and ruin your beet crop, particularly when your beets are seedlings.
- Prevention: The best organic prevention is floating row covers. Place row covers over your newly planted beets so the beetles aren’t able to find them. Make sure the covers are sealed 100%, or these small beetles will find a way in to your plants. If you remove the covers to weed around your beets, replace it as soon as you are able.
- Prevention: Rotating your crops with crops that aren’t susceptible to flea beetles is also advisable.
- Prevention: Make sure your soil nutrients are properly balanced and that your beet plants are getting plenty of water. Flea beetles are particularly devastating to weak plants.
- Treatment – “Diatomaceous Earth” (Food Grade): Dusting your plants with DE will help rid your garden of flea beetles, or at least bring them under control.
- Rodents – such as rabbits: Rodents will dine on your beet roots if you let them and they’re a problem in your area.
- Prevention: Bend a piece of poultry netting in a U-shape over your beets and secure the edges to the ground; these pests will go look for easier food.
- Maggots: Another pest that may feed on your beet roots is maggots.
- Prevention: Harvesting your beets as soon as they’re ready will reduce the risk of maggots dining on your beets before you do.
- Leaf Miners: Small white maggots that burrow and feed on beet leaves; you can tell where they’ve been as they leave a lacy trail. While leaf miners don’t affect the yield much, they make the leaves unusable.
- Prevention: The best organic prevention is floating row covers. Make sure the covers are sealed by placing dirt around the edges to hold the cover down. This will keep adult flies from laying eggs on your beet leaves.
- Problem – Forked Roots: If your soil is too rocky, this is a major cause of forked roots. Another cause can be starting beets indoors then transplanting them in your garden, which is another reason we’d recommend against transplanting.
- Problem – small roots and lots of plant leaves: Beets planted too close together with no subsequent thinning. Too much nitrogen can also create this condition.
- Disease – Leaf Spots: circular spots on leaves created by fungus. Leaf spots occur mainly if the leaves remain wet for long periods of time, particularly in fall crops.
- Prevention: Use drip irrigation or water early in the day so the plants will dry off by late morning. Also, don’t leave beet plants too close together or they’ll lack air circulation. In the fall, make sure to dispose of affected leaves and beets.
- Problem – “Root Rots:” Fungal disease that decays your beet’s roots.
- Prevention: Rotate your crops and make sure your soil drains well.
- Problem – “Yellows:” leafhoppers carry this disease which is characterized by – you guessed it – your plant leaves turning yellow.
- Prevention: Use row covers.
- Problem: “Black Heart:” When a beet root has hard, black spots in the flesh, it’s known as black heart. Basically it’s a boron deficiency. Beets require more boron than most plants, 8.6 oz. per acre.
- Prevention: Adding compost to your soil may help. You might also try Organic Garden Miracle™, a liquid organic leaf spray fertilizer with traces of boron in it. It’s primary function is to increase a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the air and soil to increase a plant’s sugar. It appears to improve not just plant size and health, we’ve also noticed an improvement in the flavor of any vegetable we’ve used it on.
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