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GROW IN ABUNDANCE: Don’t Skip a Beet This Winter

By Sommer Cartier.

Photo credit: Sommer Cartier.
Colorful beets fresh from the garden.

I once read that growing beets is an exercise in faith. You spend months cultivating and nurturing these little beauties, hidden beneath the soil, believing the reward will be worth the wait. And, in a perfect world, it would be. But things don’t always go as planned when growing beets. And when things go wrong, it can be incredibly discouraging. Nothing is more frustrating than uprooting your crop only to find the roots are too small, oddly shaped, or never even formed a bulb. However, don’t fret just yet. With a few helpful troubleshooting tips, every gardener can enjoy a healthy bounty of beets this winter.

Photo courtesy Sommer Cartier, with permission.
Author's nephew harvesting beets.

Compact soil:

Beets do not grow well in heavy, dense soil or in soil with a crusty surface. Heavy soil makes it incredibly difficult for beets to grow and swell at the roots. For best results, plant seeds in loose, well-drained, loamy soil. Be sure to remove any rocks, twigs or other debris that can restrict their growth and prevent bulbs from forming.

Photo credit: Sommer Cartier.
It is imperative they have enough space for roots to grow and swell.


Of all the mistakes made when growing beets, not providing sufficient space is probably the most common. Beets have little tolerance for crowding. In fact, it is imperative they have enough space for roots to grow and swell. If the desired outcome is smaller beets, they should be no less than 3 to 5 inches apart. For larger beets no less than 5-6 inches. Once seeds have emerged and are roughly 2 to 5 inches tall, you can create space and thin your beets by cutting off the tops of unwanted seedlings.

Photo credit: Sommer Cartier.
Can't beet this!

Keep the Soil Evenly Moist:

Keep soil consistently moist throughout the first week after sowing your seeds. If soil becomes dry, it can form a hard crust at the surface, making it difficult for seeds to break through. A thin layer of potting soil or peat moss can be spread across the seeds to help retain moisture and provide a loose layer of soil for which sprouting seeds can easily penetrate.

Once beets begin growing, it’s important to continue monitoring the moisture levels in the soil. Fluctuations in moisture can cause complications to root development. Roots can become woody when conditions become dry or crack when conditions become excessively moist.

Adequate nutrients with attention to phosphorus:

A poor balance of nutrients, or deficiency in phosphorus, can result in tiny beets. Understanding the three macronutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), or NPK for short, and the roles they play in plant development can be incredibly helpful. nitrogen (N) is largely responsible for the growth of leaves, phosphorus (P) for root growth and flower and fruit development and potassium (K) for overall functions such as transporting water and nutrients to plant tissues.

When fertilizing root crops, it’s important to pay attention to the numbers in front of each of these macro nutrients. The numbers represent their value. The higher the number, the more concentrated the nutrient. Nutrient composition in soil is unique to each garden, and within each garden, it can vary throughout the year.  It’s impossible to recommend a precise NPK combo, however, we can emphasize nutrients to pay particular attention to when growing beets. If your soil has a higher nitrogen content, your beets are likely to focus their energy on producing more lush leafy tops rather than plump bulbs. By adding more phosphorus to the soil, you can encourage larger root growth. Some good sources of phosphorus are bat guano and bone meal. Follow the directions on the box for best results.

While these strategies are just a few of the many that can be utilized when growing beets, they are some of the most important when addressing common challenges to growing healthy robust beets. For tips on managing pests, check and . If growing beets for the first time and need the “101” on getting started, check out the San Diego Master Gardener’s Guide to Winter Vegetable Gardening There is an entire section dedicated to growing beets. Good luck and happy gardening!


Sommer Cartier is a certified Master Gardener with a Master of Arts in International Development and Social Change. Her specialty is working with local food systems and using gardens as a tool for community engagement.


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