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Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

Sweet Beets (page 2 of 3)

by Kris Wetherbee

Sowing Seed

The first time I held a beet seed, I was amazed by its appearance. The tiny brown objects look like Grape-Nuts. The seed is actually a fruit cluster containing several embryos, and each cluster can produce three to five seedlings. That's why no matter how carefully you space your seeds when planting, you'll get many seedlings growing next to each other. To extend your harvest, make several sowings 2 to 3 weeks apart in spring. (In fall, plant up to 4 to 6 weeks before an expected freeze.) However, don't undersow the seeds. Beets take up to 2 weeks to germinate, and germination rates can be erratic, especially with golden and heirloom varieties. If you've had a hard time in the past germinating your seeds, consider pregerminating them by soaking the seeds in warm water overnight, swishing them around a few times to be sure the water saturates the seed. You can also sow seed indoors to avoid poor germination in wet, cold soil. Be sure to transplant the seedlings no more than a few weeks after germination. If the taproot gets long enough to curl or coil, the beet will probably be distorted.

Beets can tolerate light frosts, but wait until the soil has warmed (or cooled, for fall planting) to about 50° F before seeding. Sow seeds about 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart, or broadcast over the bed. To enhance the germination rate, cover seeds with a fine medium such as compost or vermiculite.

Keep the Beet Going

Keep the seedbed uniformly moist until seedlings appear. Consistent moisture is especially critical after sowing. Beets are shallow-rooted, and one hot day can dry the soil down to root level, killing the seedling. In dry climate areas, consider planting seeds in 2- to 3-inch-deep furrows. Moisture will collect in the furrow, and the soil will tend to stay wet longer. To get good-sized roots, thin newly emerged seedlings to one per fruit cluster. For broadcasted seed, thin seedlings to 2 inches apart. When thinning, cut the seedling with scissors instead of pulling it out. Cutting is less likely to disturb the root system of the beet seedlings left behind. When the tops are 4 to 6 inches tall, thin again to 4 inches apart. This time pull the thinnings with the immature beets attached and use them in the kitchen. If you are growing your beets just for the delicious greens, then thinning isn't necessary.

For good-quality roots, water well and mulch the plants with hay or straw piled 2 to 3 inches thick. Beet roots that haven't had a consistent supply of water tend to be stringy and woody. Flea beetles or leaf miners may damage the leaves, but these pests are seldom a serious problem. Just pick off damaged leaves, and more will grow.

Leafhoppers feeding on leaves can transmit viruses such as the curly top virus, which can destroy the crop. If some of your beets are stunted and the leaf edges are curled, pick and destroy those plants. To discourage pests, keep the growing area free from weeds where insects may hide, or grow the plants under floating row covers to prevent them from reaching your beet plants.

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