This European native, known botanically as Beta vulgaris, is grown mainly for its edible roots, but many Southerners also enjoy the tender, fresh greens, which can be cooked or eaten raw in salads. Beets are relatively pest free and make a good crop for small gardens, because they produce a lot in a limited space.
Types with round red roots include old favorites 'Detroit Dark Red' and 'Crosby's Egyptian' as well as newer selections such as 'Early Wonder' and 'Red Ace'. 'Bull's Blood' and 'Big Top' are grown both for roots and for particularly plentiful, tender, tasty greens. Novelties include 'Cylindra' and 'Rodina' (long, cylindrical roots), 'Chioggia' (rings of red and white), and selections with golden yellow, purple, or white roots.
Grow beets in fertile, well-drained soil without lumps or rocks. They grow best in the cool weather of spring and fall; they become tough and woody in hot weather. Early spring or late summer is the time to sow in most areas, but in the Coastal and Tropical South (USDA 9-11), you can grow beets as a winter crop. Most selections take around 50 days from sowing to harvest. Beet seeds germinate slowly; soaking them in water overnight before planting will speed the process. For spring crops, begin sowing seeds 2 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost; making three sowings spaced 2 to 3 weeks apart will give you a steady supply of roots and greens. For fall and winter crops, make three successive sowings 2 to 3 weeks apart, beginning in late summer.
Beets are light feeders; if you mix plenty of compost into the soil at planting time, a light dose of complete fertilizer after tops are up is sufficient. Sow seeds 1 in. apart and cover with in. of compost, sand, or vermiculite, and water gently. When seedlings are about an inch tall, thin them to 3 in. apart; the thinnings (both roots and tops) are edible. Early thinning is important, because crowded plants develop small, tough roots. To ensure tender roots, keep soil evenly moist. To thwart insect pests, grow beets under row covers.
Beet greens can be harvested when they are 6 in. tall. Snap off the outer leaves but don't disturb the inner ones; more leaves will grow for future harvests. If you plan to harvest greens regularly, plant beets for this purpose alone, as continual harvesting of greens makes for small roots. Pull roots when they're 13 in. wide; larger ones may be tough. In the Upper South (USDA 6), pull roots before the soil freezes in winter.