I’ll admit it. I’m a reformed “beet hater.” When I was a kid, I thought I didn’t like beets because the only ones I’d ever eaten had come from a can and tasted like dirt. But when I grew up and had my first oven-roasted beet from a friend’s garden, I had my own personal beet epiphany and went from being a beet hater to a beet lover. Now, beets are an essential crop in my garden every season. Like carrots, Swiss chard, turnips, spinach, and other crops, learning the best time to harvest beets plays an important role in the flavor and texture of your harvest. In this article, I’ll share some important details regarding when to harvest beets for peak nutrition, taste, texture, and storage life.
Beets: A two-harvest crop
First, it’s important to point out that beets are a biennial crop that are grown as annuals. These root vegetables grow in full sun or partial shade. They can be harvested for two different edible portions: their leaves and their roots. Growing beet plants in your garden is a great way to increase your yields. All varieties of beets have edible greens, but some selections are more flavorful than others. There are varieties with green leaves and others with red leaves. My preferences are ‘Bull’s Blood’, ‘Detroit Dark Red’, ‘Early Wonder’, and ‘Golden Globe’ for greens production, but there are many others. Let’s discuss the best harvest time for the greens first, then we’ll proceed to the roots.
Harvesting beets for their greens
If you’re going to enjoy edible beet greens fresh in a salad or on a sandwich without cooking them first, you’ll want to harvest the leaves when they are just two or three inches long, no matter what varieties you grow. These baby greens are best for fresh eating. They are tender, succulent, and flavorful, without a hint of tough texture. Successive plantings of beet seeds in compost rich soil will keep you stocked with edible greens for months. Once they get much past that stage of growth, it’s best to use them for cooking.
The best time to harvest beets for cooking greens is really any time during the plant’s lifecycle. Yes, you can cook baby beet greens, but greens at their maximum maturity are still delicious cooked. The cooking process breaks down their tough texture. This means there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding when to harvest beets for cooking greens. Frost makes the leaves even sweeter, and covering the plants with row cover in the fall means an extended harvest of beet greens.
At my house, I steal a handful of leaves for cooking every two or three weeks as the roots mature, always being sure to harvest no more than a third of the plant at any one time (they need those leaves to photosynthesize and form large roots). Then, when I pull the root from the soil for the final harvest, I also cook up the greens so they don’t go to waste.
When to harvest beets for their roots
I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this article are primarily interested in knowing when to harvest beets for their edible roots. To determine the optimum harvest time start by asking yourself the following questions:
- How do I plan to cook or prepare the beets?
- Do I mind peeling them?
- Is my harvest going to be pickled or canned?
- Am I going to be storing the roots long-term?
Once you know the answer to those four questions, you can determine the best beet varieties to grow and the best time to pull beets from the garden. Let’s consider each one of those questions as we explore how your answers determine when to harvest beets from your garden.
When to harvest beets as baby beets
If you hate peeling and/or cutting beets and want to take the easiest route, harvest your beets at the baby stage. The baby beet stage is when they are around the size of a golf ball. When the roots are this young, the skin is very soft and tender, and there’s no need to peel them prior to cooking. Just scrub them clean and cook them whole.
When to harvest beets for roasting
If you’re going to peel and section the roots for roasting, then harvest the beets when they are about the size of a baseball. At this size, beets need to be peeled, but they haven’t turned woody or pithy yet. Knowing when to harvest beets for roasting means a flavorful crop with the perfect texture. Typically, at this stage, the “shoulders” of the beets are popping up out of the soil so it’s easy to see their size clearly.
When to harvest beets for processing
For gardeners who plan to pickle or can their beets, the best time to harvest is any time after the ping-pong stage. You can process baby beets, cut up baseball-size roots, or even larger beets. I harvest roots that are slightly larger than my fist if I’m going to be pickling or canning them. Their flavors have fully developed, and you get a lot of bang for your buck, so to speak. A single cut up beet can fill an entire quart-sized mason jar. Yes, depending on the variety, beet roots can get a little tough and pithy as they reach this large size, but the canning process softens them a good bit so it’s not a problem. Here’s one of my favorite pickling recipes.
Harvesting beets for long-term storage
For those who grow beets for winter consumption and long-term storage, knowing when to harvest beets for optimum shelf-life is key. You want the skins to be thick and tough, the roots to be firm and plump, and the storage site to be “just right.” For this purpose, harvest beet roots when their shoulders start to develop a corky appearance and the roots are about the diameter of a man’s fist.
Move the mulch, pull up the roots, and brush off any excess soil, but do not wash the roots. Cut the greens off flush with the root, but do not cut down into the root itself, and do not cut off the skinny tap root coming out of the bottom of the bulbous root. If you do either, the beets will bleed, losing precious moisture which can lead to a shortened shelf life.
Store harvested beets either in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the fridge or in a root cellar or basement packed in crates of very slightly damp sand. If you use the latter option, make sure the roots don’t touch each other. If they do, rot could spread if one root happens to develop it. When you want to cook a beet, dig one out of the sand and enjoy.
Does the “days to maturity” really matter for beets?
For many crops, the number of “days to maturity” noted on the seed packet is an important factor in determining when it’s time to harvest. For beets, that number is a whole less valuable. This is not only because you can harvest the roots at various stages of their development, but also because beets will stay good long after that target date passes.
Unlike a tomato or pepper left on the vine too long, beets will not rot. And unlike over-mature green beans, beets left in the ground longer than necessary, will not dry out and shrivel up. Quite the contrary. If left in the ground at the end of the growing season, you can simply store your beets in the soil, right where they are. They’ll keep this way until the ground freezes solid. Cover your beet plants with a 5-inch-thick layer of straw and you just might be harvesting all winter long.
For beets, the “days to maturity” is not a solid target by any means. Knowing when to harvest beets is more about their size and use than it is about counting days.
Your best beet harvest
Now that you know when to harvest beets for the best texture and flavor based on how you plan to consume them, you’re fully prepared for your most delicious beet harvest ever. Store harvested beets in the refrigerator, a cool garage, or a root cellar for the longest shelf life.
For more on growing great root crops, check out the following articles:
- How to grow sweet potatoes
- When to harvest potatoes
- When to harvest carrots
- The importance of thinning carrots