Beets are a cold-weather crop that I look forward to growing in both spring and fall. Not only are beets a hearty root vegetable, but the tops are edible as well. They also grow quite fast, so you can enjoy beets before many other crops. If you want to grow beets in your garden, here’s everything you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Beets? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
The garden beet, table beet, red beet or just plain beet is a cultivar of Beta vulgaris, which means it is the same species as Swiss chard and the sugar beet. In the United States and Canada, both the plant as a whole and the taproot itself are referred to as “beet,” while in the United Kingdom the taproot is known as “beetroot.”
Beets can be roasted, boiled, grilled, baked or pickled. Slice them, grate them, cut them into wedges, or chop them like French fries. Beets go great in salads or atop a specialty pizza, and beets served alone or tossed with goat cheese make for a delectable appetizer or side dish. And don’t forget borscht, the Ukrainian beet soup. Plus the beet tops, aka beet greens, can be sautéed or added to soup.
Beets come in all shades of red and there are newer varieties that are yellow or white on the inside. You can have quite the rainbow in your garden and on your plate.
Where, When & How to Plant Beets
I plant beets around the perimeter of my leafy greens beds to make the most efficient use of the space. If you want to grow an abundance of beets, you can dedicate even more space to the crop. Beets can be planted fairly densely, but don’t pack them in too tightly, as they will not grow to their full potential if overcrowded.
Choose a planting location with well-drained soil that has a pH between 6.5 and 6.8. Amend the soil prior to planting time with compost to improve its tilth and fertility. Beets also require full sun, which is a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight daily.
Beets enjoy warm days and cool nights. Growers in milder climates have better luck with beets, but you can grow beets almost anywhere in the United States and Canada if you plant at the right time. If you practice succession planting, you will have a few tries within the same year to get the timing down.
For a fall crop, direct sow beet seeds 10 to 12 weeks before the first frost. You can continue with weekly succession plantings until four weeks before the frost date. The seeds will germinate in about five days. In spring, sow three weeks before the last frost, or as soon as the soil can be worked. Beets can germinate in soil temperatures as low as 40° though it may take longer than five days. Soaking beet seeds for an hour or overnight in warm (not hot!) water before planting can speed up the germination process. Continue spring succession plantings until the air temperature reaches 80°.
Beet seeds are rather large, and that’s because they are multigerms. Each one is actually a cluster that contains between two and five seeds. You don’t need to break the cluster apart, but you will need to thin the seedlings.
Sow a half-inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart. Once they germinate and grow to 3 or 4 inches tall, thin the seedlings to one plant every 3 to 4 inches. (Enjoy the thinned plants as beet greens.) When the plants reach 5 inches tall, apply a layer of 2 to 3 inches of light, organic mulch, such as shredded leaves or straw, to suppress weeds and improve moisture retention. The mulch will also keep the sun off the tops of the beetroots so they don’t turn green, which negatively affects flavor. And as the organic mulch breaks down, it will improve the soil.
You can also start beet seeds indoors or in a greenhouse. This is a great option if your garden is short on space. Then when you harvest other crops, fill in the gaps with the seedlings that are ready to go. Use sterile seed starting mix and plant a single seed cluster per cell, and thin seedlings to one per cell when the time comes. If growing indoors, use a seedling heat mat to warm the soil to between 60° and 85° to speed up germination. Use a grow light so the seedlings don’t stretch out in search of sun. When transplanting into the garden, take care not to disturb the roots.
Beet seeds are sold by the individual variety or as “rainbow” mixes. Mixing up the varieties that you grow will add color to the garden and will also result in different harvest times for beets that were planted at the same time. Staggered harvests are great for enjoying fresh beets for weeks on end.
Avalance is an open-pollinated white beet, inside and out, with green stems. It is an All-America Selections winner that matures in 55 days. The root diameter is 2 to 3 inches at maturity.
Boldor is a variety of golden beet. The 2-inch roots are brilliant yellow inside. The tops are green. Boldor is known for good germination and sweet flavor. It matures in 55 days.
Chioggia is an Italian heirloom beet with red and white circles inside. The 2-inch roots are round and semi-flat. The tops are green with streaks of purple on the stems. It’s ready to harvest in 65 days.
Early Wonder Tall Top is a fast-growing open-pollinated variety that matures, on average, in just 45 days, though the rate of maturity is inconsistent from one to the next. It loves the cool soil of early spring. The deep red globes grow to be 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Its green leaves have purple stems and veins.
Red Ace is a hybrid with high disease resistance and uniform round roots that are best picked at 3 to 4 inches. It’s ready for harvest in 55 days, and the green tops with bright red stems are excellent beet greens.
Ruby Queen is an open-pollinated beet with 3.5-inch round roots that are deep red inside with pink rings. Sow thickly to enjoy more of the tasty beet greens after thinning. Matures in 65 days.
Subeto is an organic, smooth-skinned red beet that matures in 50 days. The stems are purple and the leaves are green. The round taproot is mature at 1.5 inches.
Zeppo is a hybrid variety with uniform, round roots that mature in 50 days at 2 inches in diameter. The deep red roots have a mild flavor.
Beets like moist but not soaked soil. An inch per week, between rainfall and supplemental watering, will do the trick if your soil is rich in organic matter and well drained. Beets’ taproots grow high, sticking well out of the ground, so water gently to avoid washing the soil away. To test if your beets require more water, use the finger test. If you push your finger straight down into the soil all the way and it comes out clean, it’s time to water. If soil sticks to the tip of your finger, hold off on watering and test again in a couple of days.
If you planted beets in soil that is rich in organic matter and well amended with compost, your beets are off to a great start. For supplemental fertilizer, avoid high-nitrogen chemical fertilizers that will result in more leaf growth but smaller taproots. The leaves are important because they capture solar energy through photosynthesis and help the roots grow. But if there is an abundance of nitrogen, the leaves will grow large at the expense of the root.
Choose an organic granular or liquid fertilizer that is low in nitrogen or well balanced. Look at the NPK ratio — N for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, K for potassium — and make sure the first number is less than or about equal to the other two.
Fertilize for the first time when the beets sprout, and again a month later. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when applying fertilizer. More is not better and can even be detrimental.
Beet Pests & Diseases
Beets, fortunately, are not a favorite of pests, but they still have their pest and disease issues. You can get ahead of pests and the diseases they transmit by using floating row cover, which is a physical barrier that allows light and sun through while keeping insects off plants, so they can’t lay their eggs. If beet pests or diseases do become a problem, practice crop rotation to reduce recurrences.
Aphids are sucking insects and vectors for plant diseases. There are 5,000 species of aphid, and some of them attack beets. As they feed on beet leaves they excrete honeydew, which attracts ants and other insects. Aphids’ numbers can be reduced by knocking them off with a sharp spray of water, though be careful not to disturb the soil and roots with the impact of the spray. Insecticidal soap is also effective and can be applied more gently.
Cutworms, of which there are several species, feed on roots and stems. The larvae overwinter as eggs or larvae, so row cover won’t resolve a cutworm issue. If cutworms are a known problem in your garden, turn up the first couple of inches of soil two weeks before planting time to expose the larvae to birds, which will reduce the number of overwintering pests significantly.
Springtails are show up in wet, cool weather. There are types that attack beets underground and others that attack beets aboveground. Beets can typically shrug off the damage.
Diseases affecting beets include leaf spot, root rot, powdery mildew, rust and scab. To reduce disease occurrences, only use seed from a trusted source and practice good garden sanitation. Remove old beet leaves and “volunteer” beets that may harbor pathogens. Again, practice crop rotation to deny pathogens a host for a few years. That way, the beet pathogens present in the soil will be significantly reduced.
Beets are quick growers that are ready to harvest seven to eight weeks after planting time. You can pull back the mulch and inspect the “shoulders” of the beets to see how large they have grown. Generally, beets are mature when the diameter has reached between 1 and 3 inches, but you should check the seed packet of the specific variety that you are growing. When you know the right size to look for, you can avoid picking beets too late. Beets left in the ground for too long will become woody and tough. Picking too early is less of a problem. The leaves taste better when beets are picked early, and the beetroots will be sweeter as well.
Beets can be pulled out of the ground by hand. You can make this easier on yourself by deeply watering the soil the day before.
Beets are best enjoyed fresh, especially those with bruising. Damaged beets won’t store well, so eat those the day they are picked. If you do plan to store any beets, don’t rinse them off. Just brush off the dirt and cut off the greens and the thin, bottom part of the root. Place the beets in a sealed bag or airtight container and refrigerate for up to two weeks.
For long-term storage, fresh beets can be canned.
If you plan to eat the tops, put them in a bowl of water and agitate them to clean the dirt off before cooking.
What are your secrets to growing beets successfully? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
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