Growing beets in Minnesota home gardens
A quick guide to beets
- Beets can be grown all season long, but plant in spring for the best quality
- Start planting beets mid-April directly in the garden; don't start indoors
- Thin beets when tops are three to four inches tall and eat as greens
- Water once a week by soaking the soil to promote root growth
- Hill soil around exposed root tops to produce smooth skin
- Separate the greens from the roots for storage and refrigerate both
Beets (Beta vulgaris) are a traditional Minnesota garden crop, grown for their tender greens and their sweet roots, which can be boiled, baked, pickled, or grated raw into salads. Recent breeding work, along with improved selections of older types, has resulted in more choices for the modern gardener.
Golden beets, preferred by some because they don’t bleed pink color into other food, have been improved so that newer varieties such as ‘Boldor’ and ‘Touchstone Gold’ have vigor similar to standard red beet varieties.
Beet greens also can be eaten raw or cooked.
Beets tolerate heat and dry soil, and can be grown all season long. But the best quality beets are produced from spring sowings, as the plants grow and mature in moderate temperatures.
Top performing beet varieties for Minnesota:
- Red Ace
- Ruby Queen
- Pacemaker III
- Moneta (monogerm)
- Touchstone Gold
Soil pH and fertility
Like many garden crops, beets thrive when soil pH is close to neutral, between 6 and 8. Ideal soil for producing well-shaped roots would be a light sandy loam, but as long as the soil is well-drained and not compacted, even heavier, clay soils are suitable.
You can improve your soil by adding well-rotted manure or compost in spring or fall. Don’t use fresh manure as it may contain harmful bacteria, it may increase weed problems, and the readily-available nitrogen can stimulate branching of the roots.
Have your soil tested to determine your soil's pH and whether it should be amended. Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) should be applied according to soil test recommendations. Many Minnesota soils have adequate amounts of phosphorus. Unless your soil test report specifically recommends additional phosphorus, use a low- or no-phosphorus fertilizer. Fertilizer runoff is a major pollution concern in our lakes, rivers and streams (see Preventing pollution problems from lawn and garden fertilizers).
Your soil test will not give any results for the nitrogen (N) content of your soil. Nitrogen fertilizer recommendations for vegetables are based on the organic matter content of the soil and the crops that are grown.
Most gardeners fertilize the entire garden plot evenly, rather than fertilizing each crop separately, and beets need about the same amount of nitrogen as any other crop. Read manufacturer's instructions for fertilizer application. Use the lowest amount recommended for soils with more organic matter. For poor soils low in organic matter, use the higher amount.
One month after planting, apply an equal amount alongside the row, scratching it into the soil. Cultivate shallowly to avoid damaging the plants.
Planting and thinning
Deeply till the soil to prepare it for root crops, then smooth the surface of the seedbed.
Beets should be direct seeded in the garden, not started indoors. As with other crops grown for their roots, transplanting can harm or misdirect growth, leading to forked or misshapen roots.
Start planting the seeds beginning in mid-April. In a year when spring comes early, it might be tempting to plant them earlier, but if the plants experience more than a week of air temperatures below 50°F after they have established themselves, they may produce a flower stalk and stop growing.
Plantings every two to three weeks from April into June should provide a continuous supply of fresh beets and greens. A later planting in mid-August will germinate quickly and mature before hard frost.
Plant seeds at a depth of about 1/2 inch, and up to 1 inch in very sandy soil, spacing the seeds one to two inches apart. Good seed-to-soil contact and light, frequent watering will aid germination. Seedlings usually emerge within two weeks, more rapidly in warmer soils.
Beet “seeds” are actually small dry fruits, each typically containing two or three embryos, so that for each one planted, a small clump of seedlings can emerge. Although beets can tolerate crowding, the roots will not develop uniformly if they are not thinned. The extra seedlings in each clump can be pinched out by hand once they are more than an inch tall.
Thinning can be delayed until the tops are three to four inches tall, and the thinned plants can be eaten as greens. As the little seedlings will likely have become somewhat entwined, this practice may sacrifice some of the final size of the beet roots. Ultimately, the plant spacing should be about three to four inches, depending on the size of beet you wish to produce.
The red beet 'Moneta' is available as “monogerm” seed containing only one embryo. This seed is more expensive but allows the gardener to establish the correct distance between plants at planting, rather than in a separate thinning step.
Wild ancestors of beets were seaside plants, and the modern plant has tolerance for drought conditions and even soil salinity. However, if you want to produce a crop of uniform, smooth, tender, flavorful roots, make sure that the planting has adequate moisture, whether from rain or irrigation.
Vegetables need at least 1 inch of water from rainfall or irrigation each week during the growing season. Always soak the soil thoroughly when watering. This helps to promote good root development.
There is little or no value in a light watering that only wets the surface of the soil. In fact, light watering can promote shallow root development and can increase the crop's susceptibility to hot weather and drought stress, and reduce product quality. On most soils, watering once a week is sufficient. Very sandy soils may require more frequent watering.
Beets grow slowly for the first few weeks after planting and cannot successfully compete with weeds.
Two common weeds in particular can be a problem in beet rows: lamb’s quarters and pigweed. They are related to beets, and their seedlings could be mistaken for beet seedlings. Both produce seedlings with reddish leaves, as do beets. Lamb’s quarters and pigweed both will start to grow a vertical stem, whereas beet plants only produce leaves from the crown of the plant, at ground level.
As with other vegetable crops, good weed control is important to good yields and quality. Mulching with three to four inches of herbicide-free grass clippings, weed-free straw, compost, or other organic material will help retain soil moisture and help suppress weeds, decreasing the need for frequent cultivation. Nevertheless, weeding, whether by hoeing or hand-pulling, is an important task in the vegetable garden. Start cultivating to remove weed seedlings before weeds become a problem. Don’t dig too deeply, or you may damage the roots. Use a hand tool or a hoe, and cultivate just deeply enough to cut the weeds off below the surface.
When you weed, you may also want to hill the soil around the beets to cover any exposed portion of the root. Some varieties will tend to push the shoulders of their roots up out of the soil. Hilling soil around these plants will produce smoother skin and prevent greening of golden and white varieties.
Harvest and storage
Beet greens can be harvested at any size: small, mild, tender leaves can go in salads, more mature leaves are for cooking. Take a few of the largest leaves from each plant, allowing smaller leaves to develop, if you want greens from plants you will later harvest for roots.
Harvest the roots when they reach a usable size. For best quality, do not allow them to become overgrown. Over-mature beet roots can be tough and fibrous, and they may crack. In heavier soils, spading next to the plants will make them easier to pull.
Separate the greens from the roots for storage, and refrigerate both. For beets to keep the longest, they need to be stored in cold, moist conditions: 32°F to 40°F, and 95% relative humidity. Home refrigerators are generally cold and dry: 40°F, and 50-60% relative humidity. Because the refrigerator is both warmer and drier than the ideal, don’t expect the beets to last more than a week or two.
You could achieve the right conditions for beet storage in a root cellar. Under ideal conditions, beets can be stored up to five months.
Home-canned beets must be processed using a pressure canner.
Pickled beets can be safely canned using a boiling water bath, because of the acidity of the vinegar.
For assistance in diagnosing unknown problems visit What's wrong with my plant?
Two pests of beet foliage are common in Minnesota. Root development is normally unaffected by this feeding, so no control is needed.
Flea beetles chew small, round holes in leaves.
Leafminers make tunnels through the flesh of the leaves, leaving transparent markings.
Cercospora leaf spot is sometimes present on beets in Minnesota.