Ask a Master Gardener: When do beets need to be planted

What a beautiful day it was today; the high was 70 but, by the time you read this, it will be in the thirties again. At least that is what the weather person said. It will not be long until we will not have this variety -- it will just be hot with some humidity thrown in for good measure.

There are a some vegetables that do best planted early, like beets. As a kid, I can remember two types of beets; the pickled ones my grandmother made and those "diced" beets they served at the school hot lunch. I loved the latter and I could not even trade off. As an adult, I was a bit surprised the first time a friend cooked some fresh beets. Now they are one of my favorite garden vegetables. Once again, fresh out of the garden triumphs over canned.

Beets like cooler weather so they need to be planted when the soil temperature reaches 45-50 degrees, which is about mid-March to mid-April for Mid-Missouri. Although beets are not as cold tolerant as the cole crop family such as cabbage and broccoli, they can withstand a light frost. Beets are part of the same family as chard, as in Swiss chard.

Plant seeds hald an inch deep and 1-2 inches apart in a row. Beets can also be "scattered" in a wide row and "raked in." To rake in, prepare a bed of loose fine soil, scatter the seeds fairly thick and rake over the patch trying to get most of the seeds covered about a quarter of an inch.

Beets are best planted in small successions over a period of weeks in the spring. Beets can be sown in two or three successions at about three-weeks apart to ensure a continuous harvest until late spring-early summer. I will admit, this has not worked so well for me in the past. Seems I run out of room before the second or third planting time comes. I guess I need to work on my garden plan a little better.

Beets are fast growing, so for the impatient gardener (like me) it is a quick fix for spring fever. This is especially true because, although beets are known for their roots, their tops can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as greens also. You can begin harvesting the tender beet greens when you start thinning the row of beets. And thin you must. Each seed is actually a group of flowers formed together to form a cluster of seeds. Each "seed" actually contains 2-5 seeds, so thinning is necessary to get a nice root crop. I plant them a little thick so I will get more greens.

It is best to thin by cutting instead of pulling. Pulling may disturb the surrounding roots and delay their maturity, although I do like to pull them when the beetroot is about marble size and cook tops and roots together. I guess you'll have to find a balance there. Tops are best harvested while under 6 inches.

The plants you are leaving to harvest as roots should be 3-4 inches apart. Mulch to conserve water and keep the ground a little cooler and the beets will do better. They will need about an inch of water per week, like most garden plants, so if the rain fails, drag out the hose. Water stressing the beets (allowing them to dry out) can cause them to be tough and "woody." You can start harvesting in about 50 to 60 days at the size you like. But don't let them get to big; they are not as good.

If you haven't liked beets before, I hope you give fresh ones a try.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].