Beets are easy to grow in your garden or a pot, can be used in multiple ways in your food and are packed with vitamins and anti-inflammatory properties. In other words, it's a plant you might consider this summer as you're planning your garden.
I include about 1 to 2 ounces of raw beets in my smoothie each day, in addition to taking a fermented beet root powder supplement. However, if you have diabetes or are insulin resistant, carefully monitor how raw beet juice affects your overall health, as 36 percent of each beet is simple sugars. This high sugar content can also make raw beets and beet juice counterproductive during the initial transitioning phase of a ketogenic diet as you're trying to get your body to burn fat instead of sugar as a primary fuel.
I detail this process in my book, "Fat for Fuel." In these instances, fermented beet juice, also known as beet kvass, may be a far preferable option, as virtually all of the sugar is eliminated during the fermentation process. However you choose to incorporate this powerful root vegetable and its greens into your diet, you'll find it's easy to grow in your garden or on your patio.
Beets are a cool season vegetable that can do double duty in the kitchen. The root may be baked, broiled, sautéed, fermented or juiced, while the leaves add flavor, texture and color to your salad. The roots grow quickly, even after an early frost, which make them ideal for northern gardeners.1
However, fluctuating temperatures may reduce the taste and quality of the vegetable and produce white zone rings in the root.2 There are several different varieties of beets, but the most common red table beet develops leaves with red stems and leaf veins very similar to Swiss chard.3 The beet grows best when the temperature averages near 65 F, so you may get two crops in the year, with an early spring and late fall planting. Watch the predicted temperatures since with a drop below 50 F, the plants may go to seed.
Beet roots push up out of the ground as they grow. This exposed portion in some varieties may become tough and will benefit from a layer of mulch. Once the seeds are sown, you'll likely have a harvest of greens within 35 days. The roots may take another 30 days.
In the fall, you may up your crop after the first hard frost and store the root in a box of sand in a cool place until you're ready to eat them. Be sure to cut off the tops close to the root before storing.4 After trimming, the stems can be washed and stored in the refrigerator until needed for a salad, stir fry or steamed dish.
As soon as the ground dries and the weather starts to warm, it's time to plant your first crop of beets. Good soil organization is important as the growth of the plant is enhanced by good aeration. The plant thrives in well-drained sandy loam soil, high in organic matter, with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5
Although the plant has low fertility needs, it has specific pH needs. Once the pH of the soil drops to 5.8 the plant won't survive. Beets grow very poorly in acidic soil and require consistent moisture throughout the growing season. Prepare the soil with well-rotted manure composted to an 8-inch depth and pulverize the soil, removing all stones, to allow good aeration and root growth.6 The beet plant uses boron from the soil inefficiently. Boron is a micronutrient that is critical to the growth of all plants.
Boron plays a key role in cell wall formation and movement of energy in the plant.7 Plants suffer from too much or too little boron in the soil. Deep watering will drive heavy soil concentrations away from the roots, but in good soil, won't create a boron insufficiency.8 Adding lime around plants will deplete boron. Sow the seeds in full sun to optimize harvest. If you don't have a sunny area in the garden, a shaded spot will still net you lots of greens. Alternatively, consider planting in a pot that can be moved to a sunny area.
The seed is actually a dried fruit of the plant that contains multiple seeds. So, properly spacing the seeds will still result in crowded seedlings.9 Once the plant has germinated, approximately five to eight days after planting, and true leaves have formed, thin the plants so they're 4 inches apart.
Although they may germinate in cooler soil, they sprout best after soil temperatures have reached 50 F10 and will germinate at temperatures as high as 85 F.11 Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep, 1 to 2 inches apart12 in rows 12 to 18 inches apart.13 Plant your fall crop 10 to 12 weeks before you expect the first frost.14
Keep the soil consistently moist for germination and throughout the growing season. The plants lose flavor and nutrition when grown in drought conditions. You may find soaking the seeds for 24 hours before planting encourages germination in low moisture soil.15 Your beet crop will benefit from mulching to contain moisture in the soil and help reduce weeds. If the soil pH is not alkaline, you may consider sprinkling wood ashes for additional potassium that supports vigorous plant growth.16
Your beets will be ready to harvest when they are between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball.17 The root system of the beet plant is relatively delicate, so it takes just a good twist, after grasping the base of the greens, to separate the bulb from the ground.
Once removed from the ground, snip or twist off the greens from the top of the beet. You might use them in your compost pile, or wash and refrigerate them for later use in a salad or steam in a side dish. If you live in a climate with mild winters, you may be able to leave your fall planting of beets in the ground and dig them up as you need them. If you do dig up the full planting in the fall, store them in an area where they will not be exposed to frost.
Although your beets will likely grow better in the ground, they can also be cultivated in pots that are at least 12 inches deep.18 Prepare the soil in much the same way you would if you were planting in the ground, taking care the pH remains above 6.0 and closer to 6.5.
Whether you plant in pots or in the ground, beet plants are susceptible to several pests that may affect your harvest. Many of the infections or pests are best addressed by planting in a clean field where there has been no infection and areas where wild beets have not been found.19
Cutworms living in the soil may cut your plants off at the top before they have a chance to grow. To prevent this, place a 3-inch paper collar around the stem, sprinkle wood ash around the roots and keep the area free of weeds.20 Nematodes inhibit growth and are controlled by eliminating weeds and rotating crops in your garden.
Planting early or in poorly draining soil or pots can increase the risk of fungal infections that destroy your crop. Leafminers are insects that lay their eggs on the leaf. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the leaves. Yellow or blue sticky traps will catch the adults, while squeezing the leaves will kill the larvae.21
Rabbits love your beet greens and voles (rodents) attack the beet root from below, so you may need appropriate fencing to keep out the little critters.22 Deer also love the tops of red beets, and will graze on the plants until the leaves are destroyed.23 As you plan fencing, consider the size of the animals in your local area.
The best prevention against disease and pests is a strong healthy plant, growing in well-drained, well-weeded soil. Rotate your crops around the garden from year to year, and consider planting in pots when you may not have access to full sun for your beets.
Beets are like two plants in one as the leaves and root have distinctly different flavors and uses in the kitchen. There are several different varieties you may want to experiment with as you plan your spring and fall planting. Yellow and white beets tend to be sweeter and don't bleed red juice while cooking. There are several varieties to consider, but plant only heirloom seeds as they are easy to grow and not genetically modified.
Newer varieties may contain more sugar than you want in your diet. The older varieties will have less sugar than the newer hybrids.24 An heirloom favorite is the Detroit Dark Red beet dating back to 1892 and is one of the best for tasty greens.25
The Red Ace beet will produce tender greens for your salad, stores exceptionally well over the winter and is more heat resistant than other varieties. The Early Wonder Tall Top has a shorter growing season, cooks well and normally matures between 50 and 60 days. The Baby Ball variety grows as a perfectly rounded, petite beet with fine tips. The taste is mellow and produces delicious greens for your salad. It matures in about 50 days and is picked at a baby size.
There are several ways to eat beets, including the greens and roots together. Shred the beets and toss it with the beet greens in your salad. Steaming the beet with a bit of pastured, organic butter is a perfect side dish for you dinner and easy to put together. The following dishes were originally published in The Old Farmer's Almanac:26,27
Roasted Beets and Arugula
• 2 pounds beets
• Handful of fresh thyme (about 2 dozen sprigs), chopped
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
• 1/4 cup herb-flavored or other vinegar
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 2 large bunches arugula, chopped
• 1 cup grated fresh Parmesan
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Trim beets, combine with fresh thyme, garlic, orange juice, the 1/4 cup vinegar, salt and pepper. Cover and roast for 1 hour.
2. Peel and cube beets. Combine olive oil, red wine vinegar and zest. Add arugula, toss and sprinkle cheese on top.
Beets and Beet Greens in Cream
• 1 bunch young beets, with greens
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 1 small onion, minced
• Salt and pepper
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• Sweet or sour cream
• 1 hard cooked egg
1. Gather equal amounts of very small beets and greens.
2. Boil the beets separately and skin them. Rinse the greens but do not dry them. Discard all tough stems, then cook slowly in a covered pan to which you have added the butter and minced onion.
3. Do not add more water. When tender, remove the lid and boil away any remaining liquid. Add the beets, chopped quite fine; sprinkle with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and heat through. Add the cream and serve garnished with the hard cooked egg.
Beets and beet juice are packed with powerful nutrients that make an impressive impact on your health. The leaves of the plant are rich in nitrates, which your body processes into nitric oxide.28 This widens and relaxes your blood vessels, effectively lowering your blood pressure and affects how cells use oxygen.
The overall effect of greater oxygenation on your health extends to athletic performance and cognitive function as well. There appears to be a dose-related response in your body to beet juice, peaking approximately two to three hours after ingestion and reaching baseline approximately 12 hours later.29
Researchers have identified reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure that are dependent upon the dose taken. The more beet juice study participants drank, the greater the blood pressure response and the lower the amount of oxygen required to maintain a moderate amount of exercise.30
The phytonutrients that give beets their deep crimson color have powerful anticancer properties. Beetroot extract has reduced multi-organ tumor formation and is under investigation for the treatment of pancreatic, breast and prostate cancers.31
The plant is also a unique source of betaine, a nutrient known to reduce inflammation, protect your organs and enhance your physical performance. The combination may also help prevent other chronic diseases, including heart, liver, vascular and cerebral diseases.32 Raw beets are high in vitamin C, fiber, potassium and manganese, which support your immune function. High in folate, they may also lower your risk of stroke, and are an excellent food for pregnant women, essential to lowering the risk of birth defects.
Beet juice is also high in natural sugars. If you are following a ketogenic diet, it's important to introduce beets only after you have fully entered ketosis. However, fermentation will reduce the sugar content and boost the health benefits.
The fermentation process increases the bioavailability of the nutrients in the beet and feeds your gut microbiome with a myriad of important bacteria. Pickled beets, kvass and beet-infused sauerkraut are three choices. Kvass is a traditional fermented European drink that's been enjoyed for centuries.33 You may drink kvass, or add it to soups, salad dressings and sauces. Traditionally, beet kvass has been used to combat fatigue, treat kidney stones, allergies and digestive problems, and for general immune support.
Recent research using lactofermented beetroot juice demonstrated an improvement in gut microbiota and metabolic activity.34 Supplying beneficial bacteria to your gut may have a valuable impact on several health conditions affected by your gut microbiome, including diabetes, allergies, depression and neurological disorders.
Kvass has detoxifying properties, so avoid drinking too much in the early stages as it may overload your system with toxins, producing bloating, constipation and/or cold-like symptoms. Start with 1 ounce per day and gradually increase it to an 8-ounce glass each day as your symptoms allow.