Easy to grow almost all year-round in most climates, beetroot is a good choice for even the most novice of gardeners.
Jars of shop-bought pickled beetroot certainly have their place at Sunday afternoon tea with cold meat leftover from the Sunday Roast, but fresh from the garden they take on a whole new dimension of flavour with the added bonus of being chock-a-block full of nutritious goodness.
Yes, they can take a while to cook, but treat yourself to a pressure cooker (the new electric ones are super safe and easy to use) and they’re done in half an hour!
Then all you have to do is pop them in a jar with your choice of vinegar and your favourite pickling spices and they’ll beat the shop-bought ones hands down.
They’re also great in a salad with your Swiss chard and other salad greens that you can easily grow on your veg patch.
Europe and Asia Minor
Optimum pH 6.0-7.0
Beetroot, one of the most popular root crops, is an ideal subject for the home garden. Swiss chard, sugar beets and mangel-wurzels also belong to the same species and they readily cross with each other.
Although the garden beet is really a cool-season crop it can be grown for most months of the year, just before the last frost being the most favourable sowing period.
Beets are not especially sensitive to heat, provided that soil moisture is adequate, and although they are resistant to cold their growth is extremely slow in winter. During hot, dry weather, however, and on poorer soils, the plants appear to grow well, but the roots produced are frequently poor in colour and quality with marked white zoning in some cultivars.
Garden beets are of course grown primarily for the swollen roots that are used, when cooked, in the preparation of several salad dishes. But the foliage or ‘greens’ need not be discarded for they can be used as a spinach and, indeed, for several hundred years they were grown specifically for this purpose.
The red globe or round cultivars are the only ones grown to any extent in the home garden, although golden-yellow and white sorts are also popular, while one or two long cultivars have appeared locally in recent years.
The flat cultivars have all but disappeared from many catalogues as they are less tolerant of heat.
In the main this has similar characteristics to Detroit but shows more zoning, even when grown under the same climatic and soil conditions.
Detroit Dark Red:
A globe-shaped beet with more than one strain. It is the leading cultivar in most areas and displays a deep colour with little or no zoning.
Formanova and Long Conner
These are cylindrical cultivars that are well worth a trial by the home gardener.
Soil Preparation For Growing Beets
Beets can be produced satisfactorily on a wide range of soils but, like most roots, they prefer deep, friable soils rich in organic matter. Hard compact soils should be avoided if possible, especially for long cultivars, as they do not allow the roots to develop symmetrically and growth is often slow.
Soils improved with compost or manure for potatoes, brassicas or tomatoes produce the best roots, and on such soils 60 g per m of superphosphate should be an adequate base dressing. On poorer soils a dressing of 2:3:2 at a similar rate should be regarded as a minimum requirement.
Beets, because of their maritime origin, will not thrive on strongly acid soils, which, in any event, are frequently clayey in nature. They are extremely sensitive to boron deficiency and are in fact a good indicator for this condition.
Blackened areas and cracking of the roots are the usual expressions of this deficiency, which can be rectified by distributing commercial borax at the rate of 50 g per 10 m at the same time as the basic fertilizer dressing.
The ground for beet plantings, as for all directly-sown crops, should be free from perennial weeds.
Will Beets Grow In Limey Soil?
Not if the lime content is very high. Beetroot likes neutral or only slightly alkaline conditions.
A soil pH of 5.8-7.0 is ideal.
A high lime content will make the soil more alkaline than that. Test the soil with a chemical or electronic kit, or see how a crop performs.
Slow progress and yellow leaves indicate too much lime. Digging compost into the ground will improve the texture of the soil.
Try to use a compost that has been made with acid organic material, such as pine needles, bark or peat.
If the pH level stays high despite adding acid compost, dress with soil sulphur (flowers of sulphur) or sulphate of ammonia, using about two handfuls to the square metre.
Do Beets Grow Best in Sun Or Shade?
Like most other root vegetables, it will grow in a sunless position provided it gets plenty of light. But it does prefer sunshine. Constant dark shade – beneath a tree, say – will result in weakened tops and much smaller roots.
If you have in mind a lightly shaded position protected from cold winds, use that for early sowings because they will appreciate the extra shelter from the elements.
Propagation of Beets
Beets are propagated by seed, usually sown where the crop is to mature, although seedlings can be raised in nursery beds and later transplanted. This move, however, retards the crop considerably.
Monogerm cultivars containing only 1 seed have also been developed.
Sowing Beet Seed
After the ground has been well dug over and amendments added the soil surface should be brought to a fine tilth with a rake and all clods broken and foreign matter removed. The seeds should be sown 50-60 mm apart in shallow drills and covered with 20-25 mm of soil.
An adequate distance between rows in bed culture and where only 3 or 4 rows are concerned is 250-300 mm.
During hot weather, grass can be laid thinly on the rows as a temporary mulch to prevent crusting and drying out and to assist emergence. It should be removed completely or moved to the inter-row spaces as soon as the seedlings emerge.
How Long Do Beet Seeds Take To Germinate?
If the ‘sow by ‘or’ packed in the year ending’ date hasn’t expired, you can stop worrying, because beetroot seed should still germinate even when it’s as much as three years old. The seed contains a natural chemical which inhibits germination, and quite often the seed won’t sprout readily until after heavy rain.
You can beat nature at her own game by soaking the seed in tepid water for an hour and sowing it immediately while it is still wet. The first seedlings should then surface 10-14 days later.
Even if you use this trick, don’t be surprised if early sowings are slow to emerge. Beetroot thrives only in warm soil; at temperatures below 10°C germination may be very slow. Beetroot is a cool-weather crop that may be sown in autumn or spring.
One ordinary beetroot seed is really a cluster of two or three surrounded by a cork-like outer layer and you can’t separate them before sowing. Monogerm cultivars containing only 1 seed have also been developed.
However, when the seedlings start to spring up, they should be thinned to leave just one seedling at each position. About three weeks after that, thin the plants again so that they are 10-15 cm apart.
Transplanting Beet Seedlings
Plants raised in seedbeds can be moved to permanent quarters when they are 80-100 mm high and should be set out 75 mm apart in the row. Trimming off a third of the foliage facilitates planting out and appears to assist in obtaining an even stand of transplants.
Further Treatment For Growing Beets
As with all directly-sown crops, weed control is essential during the early stages if the seedlings are to have a chance to grow away.
Because of the nature of the ‘seeds’, thinning out is usually necessary, even in the most carefully-sown rows, otherwise there will be tremendous competition for light, moisture, nutrients and space.
Un-thinned rows are completely useless for anything except leaf spinach, because under such conditions the roots tend to become woody even when young. The first thinning can be carried out when the seedlings are 30-40 mm high, followed, if necessary, by a second when they are 70 mm high.
The second thinning, if carried out carefully, should provide planting material for a row or two or ‘greens’ for the table. This thinning should leave the plants 75-100 mm apart.
Drawing up a little soil to the plants after the final thinning will give the remaining plants welcome support, and this can be repeated again if necessary.
This is a simple and pleasurable activity. Beets can be pulled from the time they are 50 mm in diameter, which should be 8-9 weeks after sowing or 7-8 weeks after transplanting.
The cylindrical cultivars will require another 2-3 weeks to be ready. After pulling, the tops should be twisted off 30-50 mm above the root crown. Care should be taken not to damage the taproot, or bleeding and consequent loss of colour will result.
Pests Affecting Beets
Cutworms often feed on the young seedlings and on the shoulders of the mature roots. BHC and carbaryl applications in the early stages of growth, and baiting as the roots approach maturity, should reduce damage appreciably.
Diseases Affecting Beets
Cercospora Leaf Spot
A fungal disease that is extremely common on beets, Swiss chard and related crops, is particularly prevalent during wet periods.
High humidity and medium temperatures appear to stimulate its development.
The spots are small (3-4 mm in diameter) but appear at an alarming rate under favourable conditions.
Crop rotation and the use of clean seed are basic to long-term control, while Dithane M45 and copper oxychloride are useful once the disease has become established.
How to Store Beetroot
It depends how long you want to keep them. These are the rules to follow:
- Twist off – rather than cut – the leaves to minimize bleeding and take care not to damage the taproots.
- The roots without the tops can be kept in a cupboard for several weeks.
- If stored in the ‘crisper’ drawer of a refrigerator, they will keep for up to three months.
Roots left in the ground will not keep as well. In time they will be harmed by heat. Diseases and slugs will also take their toll.