Southerners have always used many different types of greens with their meals. One that is grown more for its bulbous root than greens over most of the country is the beet. Yet, historically, beets were originally grown for their tops. Check descriptions carefully when purchasing seed if you want to have large, edible roots. If you use heirloom seed, you might be disappointed in the size of the root. These heirlooms might grow you loads of tops with tiny roots.
Heavenly Seed is a small South Carolina heirloom seed company with several beet seed selections that will grow roots or tops or both. I tried Chioggia, also known as Bull’s Eye, which has a red and white circular pattern to the root, and Cylindra, longer than the usual beet root we are used to, making it a good slicer.
Beet seed is actually a hard capsule that contains several seeds. If you soak the seed for 24 hours, you will get quicker germination. This misshapen “seed ball” usually contains two to four viable seeds.
Beets need a soft growing area so their roots will mature correctly. Prepare a seed bed deeply in a well-drained area. Add plenty of compost to improve either clay or sandy soils. The pH should be between 6.5 & 7.5.
Sow the beet seeds 1/2 to 3/4 inches deep, 3 inches apart, in rows 2 to 3 feet apart. Keep the soil moist but not wet.
The most critical thing to do when growing beets is to snip off all but one beet plant seedling so the bulb will have room to grow. Since beet seed is actually several seeds in a cluster, you have to thin the seedlings by cutting off all but the strongest plant in each planting hole. (Use scissors. Do not pull them; you can damage the roots of the plant you want to save.)
Begin thinning when seedlings are about 4 to 5 inches tall, and eat the thinnings. Thin to 3 to 4 inches if you plan to harvest young, small, or cylindrical-shaped roots, or 6-inch spacing for larger roots.
Beets Tolerate temperatures to 40 degrees F. so plant them early in the spring. A late fall crop can be planted, too. Think about the coming temperatures. Beets will bolt (send flower stalks & be inedible) with temperatures no higher than 50 degrees, if these temperatures last for more than 2 weeks.
By Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Entomologist and Orkin Technical Services Director
Photographs courtesy of Orkin
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