A beet seed is capable of sprouting into as many as eight seedlings. This is bad news for gardeners who carefully space each seed within its row. Most table beet seeds, unless the variety is listed as monogerm, are actually clusters of seeds. Imagine numerous plants all vying for the same space in which to produce a harvestable-size beet. It’s not going to happen. You have to thin.
This critical fact seems to escape the notice of most gardeners. Perhaps it’s because seed packets don’t mention multiple seedlings. Maybe it’s because thinning is one of gardeners’ least enjoyable activities. I’ve come to expect new gardeners to cringe when I mention thinning. Sometimes I sense a gardener thinking, “I will not do it. I’d never have decided to become a gardener if I knew I’d be expected to kill little seedlings.”
Thinning beets is a bit different than thinning other vegetables. Take ahold of a young leaf and gently pull it away from the others to see if there are multiple stems. If so, pluck out all but one and leave a plant every 3 inches. Once plants get older, to determine if there is more than one growing in the same location, watch the soil line for a separation of individuals as you pull a leaf apart from the others. Luckily, two or three seedlings are more common per seed cluster than eight.
Pluck is a gentler word for thinning than yank or pull. But pluck was not part of my vegetable gardening vocabulary until I started working with UAF Office of Sustainability’s Nanook Grown gardeners. It made me smile to hear the students talk about plucking their vegetables instead of harvesting or picking. One plucks chicken feathers or a ripe fruit from a tree but vegetables? In retrospect, I’ve decided that plucking beets from the earth makes perfect sense, especially when they’ve grown to sufficient size after diligent thinning.
Most beets are listed as requiring between 50 and 65 days until maturity, but beets can be harvested when the roots reach the size you prefer. There are varieties like Lutz Green Leaf that take longer to bulk up, but this beet, like others considered as storage beets, gets really large if given enough time to grow. Badger Flame, a golden, cylindrical-shaped beet named for the mascot of my alma mater, is supposed to take 70 to 80 days to reach its mature 4-inch length. I’ve never grown Badger Flame beets but will find out this summer if they grow to meet their specifications and are sweet enough to eat raw like a carrot.
Beet variety trials use weight as a measure of productivity. The top performer listed in Cooperative Extension Service’s publication on growing beets is Early Wonder but size is not everything. I’m on a campaign against Early Wonder because of its tendency to bolt. Bolting is a premature flowering that interferes with productivity. Spinach bolts, cilantro bolts. We don’t need a beet prone to bolting when bolt-resistant varieties are available. Besides, Early Wonder beets have ugly necks.
Red Ace is a beautiful beet and I’m happy to report that in trials done by Heidi Rader and Glenna Gannon at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, Red Ace was the most productive beet trialed in 2017. It produced small beets in 2018 but did not bolt.
If you think beets taste like dirt, you’ll be pleased to learn that plant breeders at the University of Wisconsin are working to tone down their earthy flavor. Its been determined that beets produce their own geosmin, an organic compound responsible for the smell of freshly turned soil. Chioggia and Bull’s Blood beets are known to contain more geosmin than other table beet varieties.
Give beets a chance. You have time to plant beets this entire month. Beet recipes are available from UAF Cooperative Extension Service at http://bit.ly/2wyn7IO. Our publication on growing beets can be found at bit.ly/2Mw56l8 or by stopping by the Cooperative Extension Service Tanana District office in the University Park Building in Fairbanks. Popular publications, including those on beets, can be accessed during non-office hours from a hall rack outside the office.
Julie Riley is horticulture agent with UAF Cooperative Extension service in the Tanana District office at 1000 University Ave. She works with gardeners and Alaska’s horticulture industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-474-2423.