How to Cultivate Sugar Beets for Food and Fodder

As an adventurous gardener, it’s always exciting to try growing new plants that might become your new favorite. Have you ever considered growing sugar beets? These large roots take longer to mature than table beets, but they have a unique flavor and texture that make them worth the wait.

The Cultivation and History of Sugar Beets

Sugar beets have an interesting background. They are thought to have originated from the wild variety (Beta maritima) that grows along the southern coasts of Eurasia. The modern sugar beet we know today was developed in the 18th century from white fodder beets. German chemist Andreas Marggraf discovered that the crystalized sucrose from beets was the same as that from sugarcane, leading to the establishment of the sugar beet industry in Europe.

During the Napoleonic wars, the demand for sugar increased due to trade blockades preventing sugarcane from reaching France. Napoleon ordered the planting of thousands of hectares of sugar beets in northern France, sparking the growth of the industry. Sugar beets eventually reached the shores of the United States in 1836 and became a significant crop during World War II to combat sugar shortages.

Propagation of Sugar Beets

The easiest way to grow sugar beets is by sowing seeds directly in the garden. While you can start seeds indoors, sugar beets don’t typically transplant well. Planting in the spring is common in cooler regions, while in warmer, semi-arid areas, they are grown as a winter crop starting in the fall.

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To grow sugar beets from seed, plant them in well-tilled soil and sow them about an inch deep. Press the soil firmly on top to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Thinning of seedlings is necessary since each seed pod contains multiple seeds. It’s important to space the plants about four to six inches apart to allow them to grow properly.

Growing Tips and Care

Sugar beets require full sun and loose, well-drained soil to thrive. Thoroughly prepare the planting site by tilling the soil and removing any rocks or weeds. Ensure that the soil pH is between 6.0 and 8.0 and provide regular applications of fertilizer to meet the plants’ nutrient needs.

Keep a close eye on weeds, especially when the seedlings are emerging. Young sugar beets are slow to mature and can easily be outcompeted by weeds. Once the plants have established, their large leafy foliage will shade the ground and prevent weed growth.

Water the plants regularly to maintain constant moisture levels, ensuring they don’t become too dry. Sugar beets have a deep root system that allows them to access water in the soil, making them more resistant to underwatering compared to table beets. However, be careful not to overwater them, as this can lead to cracked or malformed roots.

Managing Pests and Diseases

While sugar beets are generally hardy against pests and diseases, it’s essential to monitor your garden for any potential issues. Deer and rabbits are known to enjoy sugar beets, so protecting your crop with fencing or wire mesh is recommended.

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Aphids and flea beetles can occasionally be pests for sugar beets. Aphids, such as the sugar beet root aphid, can cause significant damage to the roots. Monitoring and addressing any infestations promptly can help prevent severe consequences. Cutworms, wireworms, and sugar beet nematodes are other potential pests to watch out for.

Sugar beets are relatively resistant to diseases, but Cercospora leaf spot and powdery mildew can occur. Good crop rotation practices, sanitation, and maintaining proper spacing between plants can help minimize disease incidence.

Harvest and Storage

Sugar beets typically take between 90 to 160 days to mature, depending on the variety and growing conditions. To harvest the roots, gently loosen the soil around the plants with a garden fork and lift them out of the ground. You can cut off the tops before harvest, but it’s not necessary.

After harvesting, sugar beets can be stored for a short time if you plan to make syrup or sweetener. However, the sucrose content deteriorates quickly, so prompt processing is recommended. If you want to use the roots for snacks or side dishes, brush off excess dirt and store them in a cool, dark location in a bed of sand or sawdust.

The leaves of sugar beets can be harvested for forage or personal use. Store harvested leaves in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use them. They can last for several months but should be turned occasionally to prevent mold. Alternatively, you can freeze the leaves after blanching them.

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

While sugar beets lack the nutritional value of table beets, they can still be enjoyed in various recipes. The leaves are more nutritious than the roots and can be cooked similarly to chard or kale. Roasting the leaves with olive oil or adding them to soups are popular options.

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To prepare the roots, they can be roasted, boiled, grilled, or used in any recipe that calls for potatoes or beets. Shredded sugar beets can be used to make sugar beet latkes or added to coleslaw for a unique twist. You can also follow a homemade sweetener recipe by boiling, reducing, and crystallizing the juice extracted from the roots.

In conclusion, sugar beets offer a unique growing experience and culinary possibilities. Whether you’re growing them for food or fodder, these hardy roots can add diversity to your garden. So why not give sugar beets a try and see what exciting possibilities they hold for you?

Ames Farm Center