Written by Zoey Stefanich, SDSU Agronomy, Horticulture, and Plant Sciences Department Undergraduate Student, under the direction and review of Kristine Lang, Assistant Professor, and Rhoda Burrows, Professor. Special thanks to Cj Calmus and Jack Farquhar for peer review of this publication.
Introduction to Table Beets
Table beets (Beta vulgaris) are a common root crop that is a great source of vitamins A and C. These beets are a cool-season biennial crop that is grown as an annual. Beets typically grow outside during the spring and fall months in South Dakota. Table beets can also be grown in high tunnels, greenhouses, or hydroponically in order to extend the growing season. As of 2017, South Dakota beets are grown on just 8 acres of land, while the Midwest produces beets on a total of 6,281 acres. Although you can eat every part of a beet plant, originally beets, which derive from the Mediterranean area, were used only as a leaf crop, mostly for salads. Progressively, beets were developed to have a bigger and better root, and now beet roots are eaten in many ways: pickled, raw, hot, or cold. Beets can be yellow, purple, red, or white, and some are cylindrical in shape rather than round. There are even some varieties, such as the Babybeat, that are miniature in size. There are many types of beets, and below are a selection of some recommended varieties.
Types of Table Beets
3-Root Grex “golden” beet was a favorite in Minnesota Master Gardener trials. It is an open-pollinated variety with a rainbow of root shapes and colors, including yellow, orange, pink, and red. It requires 55 days to harvest.
Avalanche is a white beet that was an All-American winner. It’s good for raw eating as well as cooked. It requires 50 days to harvest.
Babybeat is an open-pollinated, early-maturing variety classified as mini. Its mature roots are 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and they are deep red in color and sweet in flavor. This beet type can be canned whole, and the tops make good greens. It requires 40 days to harvest.
Chiogga is an open-pollinated heirloom beet with light red skin and interior rings of pink and white. It is very sweet and requires 55 days to maturity.
Crosby’s Egyptian is an heirloom variety that takes 50 to 56 days to harvest, and the leafy tops can be an exceptional source of greens. It has a large, round roots, is dark red in color and is very sweet without the “earthy” taste common in some beets.
Red Ace is a hybrid. It is resistant to bolting, so it can be harvested over a long season. The roots are very sweet and uniformly deep red in color. It requires 50 days to maturity.
Ruby Queen is an older variety that requires 60 days to harvest. This beet is an All-America Selections winner, has exceptional quality, and can be planted in the spring to harvest in early summer. It is sweet, tender, and round, with uniform roots.
Managing Quality in Table Beets
Fertilizing, Watering and Weeding
To achieve the desired quality, beets should be well-irrigated in soil that is well-drained. Fertilizing with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium can be done based on soil test results. Be aware that too much nitrogen can cause too much top growth, which takes away from root growth. Beets are also sensitive to boron levels and prone to boron deficiency. Boron deficiency causes cankers, or necrotic spots, within the root, thus making them inedible. Watering plays a key role in boron deficiency, because too little water can provoke the problem. Weeding is very important, because beets cannot compete well with weeds. Another important quality practice is thinning, since there are numerous seeds in the seed structure. To thin, one should remove some plants to allow for adequate spacing and better nutrient uptake.
The quality of a beet is often characterized in many ways that consider root shape, color, root size, smoothness, firmness, and amount of defects.
Pests, Diseases and Disorders
Pests, diseases, and disorders can also play a role in crop quality. One major pest of beets are flea beetles (Figure 1). Flea beetles can significantly damage the crop by chewing small holes in the leaves. To help the issue, farmers can plant another crop, like radishes or arugula, near the beets in order to function as a trap crop. One common disease is Cercospora Leaf Spot (Figure 2), which can be avoided by removing plant debris after harvest and planting beets in a different spot than the previous year. Beets can also suffer from zoning, which is a disorder that affects the internal color of a beet. Zoning is due to hot weather and inadequate moisture, which can also be a cause of tough roots. The color abnormality is recognized as bands of red and pale on the inside of the root.
When to Harvest Table Beets
Table beets can be harvested once the roots have matured to the desired size. In general, they are ready for harvesting when they become golf-ball sized, or one to three inches in diameter, depending on the variety. For most beet varieties, this will be 50 to 70 days after planting, which is the horticultural maturity of the crop. Usually, the larger the beet, the sweeter it will taste, but it can also be tougher and more fibrous in texture. The harvest size also can depend on how the beet is intended to be prepared. Smaller sizes (one to two inches in diameter) are better used for pickling, cooking, or canning whole. Depending on planting dates, beets can be planted and harvested several times within the season. Some varieties can be planted in the spring and harvested during early summer, while others can be planted in midsummer and harvested before an intense freeze.
How to Harvest Table Beets
Harvesting table beets on a relatively small scale can be done by hand or with a tool, like a potato fork. On a larger scale, specialized equipment, like a multiple-row digger, is used, which is a similar machine to the potato digger. The roots and leaves of a beet can be harvested. When harvesting the leaves with the intention of also harvesting the roots, only a few leaves can be taken off each plant using a knife. When harvesting on small-scale production, beets can be bunched together with rubber bands (Figure 3) and put into large bins before being cleaned. Beets can also be put in a bin and topped (Figure 4) when cleaning rather than bunched. The bundles are typically equivalent to one pound in weight, or three to five beets (depending on variety); though, it should be noted that bunching beets can increase the perishability as compared to unbunched.
Cleaning Table Beets
First, before handling the produce, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and clean all equipment. The beets can then be cleaned under cool, running, potable water without the use of soap. Beets should be cleaned without breaking the skin, which serves as a protection against water and nutrient loss. The root should not be trimmed during the cleaning process; however, the stem should be trimmed 2 inches above the beet before being stored to maximize shelf life (Figure 4).
To streamline the cleaning process, using a hands-free water source can cut labor significantly. One form of cleaning machinery to streamline the process is a root washer. A root washer is a big drum that spins the produce with a running water source. As the drum spins, the produce is cleaned with minimal effort by the grower.
Sorting and Marketability
Beets have U.S. Department of Agriculture set standards: U.S. No. 1 and U.S. No. 2, which are mostly based on appearance (see the lists below for details). Farmers should sort out produce that would not be associated with either grade. For example, disease or insect-infested beets should not go to market. If a farmer has both bunched beets and beet roots, they should be separated from one another.
- Free from mechanical damage, growth, cracks, disease, and soft rot.
- Relatively smooth, clean, well-trimmed, and firm.
- Have tops that are free from decay and fresh.
- Free of damages associated with freezing, mechanical sources, insects, disease, and discoloration.
- The diameter cannot be any less than 1 to 1.5 inches.
- Firm, well-trimmed, not too rough, and not too misshapen.
- Free from soft rot, no serious mechanical damage, no serious cracks, and no serious disease or insects.
- Have tops free from decay.
- No top damages, like discoloration, diseases, insects, and freezing.
- The diameter cannot be any less than 1 to 1.5 inches.
Harvest and Post-harvest Food Safety
Food safety concerns when growing table beets include the following:
- Beets grow in the ground, which is something to pay mind to when regarding food safety. Raw manure should never be applied to fields before growing beets, and they should not be grown in ground subject to flooding.
- Thoroughly cleaning the crop, as well as any equipment used, is an important safety practice regarding beets, especially because beets may be eaten raw. This can be managed by being diligent when cleaning and making sure to clean them the right way. The roots should not have free water on them when they go into storage.
- Potential microbial contamination due to cuts and bruises on table beets is a food safety concern. A way this can be managed is careful harvesting and careful cleaning of the crop.
On-farm Storage of Table Beets
Table beets can be stored in a variety of ways. Market beets are harvested and bunched before being packaged in crates. These bunched beets need to be precooled 4 to 6 hours after harvest, while mature beets should be at 41 degrees Fahrenheit within 24 hours. Precooling should be below 39 degrees Fahrenheit and can be done via forced-air cooling and hydro cooling. Appropriate precooling and storage can prevent decay and discoloration. Bunched table beets should be kept in a humid and cool place but not in large quantities. They can be kept at temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit with 98 to 100 percent humidity for around 2 weeks; however, they must be in a properly ventilated container or bin. The greens can also be kept in the fridge, but only for a couple of days, as they are more perishable; however, they can be preserved for longer, even up to two weeks, if they are kept close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit at a humidity of 95 percent. The cool storage requirements may make it difficult to transport beets and sometimes will be transported over ice to remain cool. If not stored properly, there is a chance of fungal spoilage, wilting, vitamin decrease, and overall diminished quality.
Marketing Table Beets
Marketing tactics for table beets include the following:
- Beets are a hearty and nutritious food. They are now being marketed as a superfood, which captures a lot of people’s attention.
- There is potential to target restaurants for increased sales.
- The leaves of the plant can also be eaten, not just the root.
- Beets are vibrant, colorful, and can come in many sizes, making them attractive to consumers.
- There is potential to make additional income using value-added products, as beets can be prepared in many different ways, like canning or pickling. There is also value in the leaves of the plant, as they are edible and great for salads.
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