Beet seeds (actually a ‘seed cluster’ of several seeds in a dried fruit) may be sown 30 days prior to the frost free date. Sow seeds in full sun about ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart with 12 to 18 inches between rows in well-cultivated (to 10 inches), well-drained, fertile soil. As several seedlings will emerge from each seed cluster over an extended time, hand thinning to 2 or 3 inches minimum will be necessary. If growing for sugar production, beets must remain in the ground longer, until October, so thin to 8 inches apart so roots don’t crowd one another. If thinning is delayed until seedlings scheduled for removal are 3 inches or so high, the entire plant, including roots, may be cooked as greens. For proper growth, beets need regular water, potassium, and shallow cultivation to control weeds. Deep cultivation would likely damage the beet roots.
Sugar beets, garden beets, mangels (also known as stock beets), and sweet chard are all Beta vulgaris. All rooted beet crops have fairly high sugar content in their roots. Man has always craved sweets. In 500 BC, in India, green cane stalks were crushed in a press, the pulp boiled to evaporate the liquid, and the resulting brown sludge ground into a dark brown powder called ‘kakura’. Kakura became a valuable commodity and slowly spread to the West. As it passed through the Middle East, the Arabic speaking peoples translated kakura to ‘sukkur’ which became ‘sugar’ when the Crusaders introduced it to Europe in the 11th Century. However, ‘kakura’ cane could not be grown outside the tropics, and only the very wealthy could afford this luxury import. Finally, in the 1700s a German chemist devised a method to extract crystallized sugar from beet pulp. Now, an easily grown, temperant season crop became a practical source of sugar. Benefits were enormous for Europeans and eventually for North Americans. Beet strains higher in sugar were developed and hundreds of beet processing factories were constructed in Germany, France, and Britain. The United States joined the effort in the 1830s when German-American immigrants brought the technology to their new country. By 1870 there was a processing plant in California and by the 1890s plants were established in Nebraska, Utah and Colorado. Today sugar beet processing is still contributing to the economic well-being of many small towns in the American farmland.
Several cultivars are known for their sugar content, including 'Klein Wanzlebein', 'Albina Vereduna', and 'Saccherifera'. Roots attain maximum sugar content in the fall so seed in May and pull mature beets in October.
With a little bit of culinary daring and luck, home refining of small amounts of sugar is possible. Richters seeds (www.richters.com) has a downloadable instruction sheet, Richters InfoSheet D1340, on home refining of sugar beets. Their guidance, adopted from a Family Food Garden magazine, involves 2 large 8 to 10 pound beets, an orange juicer, a percolator top, a large canning size pot, a meat slicer/grinder or grater, milk of lime (available from pharmacies) and a fair amount of time. The final result should be about ½ cup of white sugar and ½ cup of healthful black-strap molasses.
Well cultivated beets have few problems. The most common pests are leaf miners and flea beetles, but they cause little problems to other than foliage.