Beetroot is such a sweet crop. Virtues abound for the grower and the cook. Beets are undemanding on the soil, grow quickly, not bothered by pest or disease, use hardly any space and get on well with everyone – all in all easy peasy … or is it? Some of you are having beetroot traumas. All tops and no bottoms, or turning out woody, miserable things. A tweak or two in the right direction and hey presto, from fail to success, from sad to happy. Let me take you there.
Fresh seed is best. So is soaking those gnarly little nuggets over night.
Here’s my beetroot seed soaking jar. The holes in the lid make draining the soaking water off easy.
Put the seed in and cover with warm water. Leave overnight (or for longer if time gets away on you). I use a mix of seeds for the joy that different coloured beetroots in the same harvest brings. Tip the jar upside down and drain the water off just before sowing.
Now that there are only 2 beetroot eaters in our house I sow about 20 seeds a month. Sometimes I’ll double that to have extras to pickle or ferment. Figure out how many beetroots you want to harvest each time. Bear in mind each seed is actually a cluster of seeds, so you may get 1 or 3 or 6 seedlings from one. And they won’t all germinate at the same time either. New ones will pop up along the way providing a useful staggered harvest. From one sowing I’ll be harvesting ripe beets over a 3 week period.
The most important thing for beetroot is free drainage – beach dwellers rejoice! Being a fast turn around crop + a root crop, if soil is in good nick, it generally needs nothing added. If you are growing all tops and no bottoms chances are you are overdoing the additions – pull back and watch the roots go!
Here’s some thoughts on how to prep your soil whether it’s at the beginning of transformation or somewhere near the middle.
Pick up a handful of soil. Feel it. Smell it. See it.
Beauty soil is soft and peaty, smells earthy and good (ie doesn’t make you recoil), sticks together ever so slightly, has a few worms and is slightly crumbly. Beetroot will do well in here.
At the other end of the spectrum, poor soil is gluggy, gooey, hard, has no worms (or just those giant big milky ones that should be lower down) and smells sour OR is super dry, smells musty, is loose with no-stick and has no worms. Either way your soil needs work before it grows wonderful crops. Keep ticking away at it over time and relax about it! You’ll get there.
In the case of poor soil, it’s tempting to add sheep pellets + everything you can get your hands on right before you plant or sow. This is a recipe for foliage + sucking insects, not strong soil + well-formed roots.
Better to keep working on your soil for another season and grow your beetroot (and indeed other crops) in boxes or pots until your soil is fanging it.
Middle of the road soil that’s nearly at beautiful is missing one or two aspects of the feel-good, look good, worms + smell good factors. Add compost. Its the magic cure all. Perhaps a full spectrum mineral fertiliser too. Trust your gut here.
Making a mound is a good way to rise above heavy soil and fake a bit of drainage.
Location, location, location
Beetroot grows best as a companion plant because it matures fast (50 – 60 days). Increase the usefulness of your space by planting it with long term crops like tomatoes, beans, broccoli, cucumbers or in between young squash plants or low flowers like chamomile and calendula – you are only limited by your imagination!
Choose a companion with a spreading root rather than a bulbing one. Crops stacked like this compliment + support rather than compete. Though they are close together, they’ve got their own place in the jigsaw puzzle.
A whole bed of beetroot on its own becomes vulnerable to drying out once temperatures rise, needing more watering than were it the groundcover crop beneath or alongside a main crop. Beetroot that dries out grows slowly, goes bitter and shoots to seed.
The other downer about this scenario is the empty bed you create at harvest time. When your beetroot crop is the fast-growing companion to a long term crop, you’ll harvest the beetroot as the companion crop is taking over and filling the space. Continuity of ground cover looks after our soils in the best of ways as well as using our garden space efficiently.
Lots of little ones or less big ones
The choice is yours and it all comes down to spacings. I’m after small, sweet beets that I harvest little bunches of, often. If you are pickling in bulk for example, you may want big ones that save time processing. In this case, make your spacings bigger.
Sow the seed
Gently pat the soil down so it’s firm. Then run your finger through the soil making a channel that’s twice as deep as the seed. Dot the seed along at 10cm-ish spacings. If you are doing more than one row, leave a 20cm spacing between rows, depending on how large you want your beetroot.
Cover the seed and peg a sack or bit of shadecloth on top. Pour over liquid seaweed +/or EM.
Keep an eye beneath the sack and once the beets have 2 leaves, peel the sack off. Protect these newbies with a bit of birdnet or birdsticks and if slugs are a risk then sprinkle bait or whatever it is you do to manage them.
You can also tray sow beetroot. This is a good idea if you wont have time to keep an eye on it in the garden. Use small plug trays and pop 3 or 4 seeds in each plug.
Thinning out your seedlings will produce lovely round beetroots. The bigger the spaces the bigger the beetroot. I find they grow faster and therefore are sweeter if I thin progressively retaining a sense of community and togetherness while they are small.
Rather than thinning out to the fully grown spaces when they are little wee, I make the spaces wider as they grow and fill the space.
I leave my beetroots to grow together in little bunches of 3 with about a 10cm space between each group. Beetroot’s such a little guy – little roots, little tops – together they are stronger.
In those little bunches of 3 there will be one that matures fastest – simply peel it off, leaving the others to fill out. Whenever you harvest, scan the row and whip out any seedlings that are crowding. If you are ever so careful, you can transplant the thinnings.
Watering + feeding
Keep your beetroots barely moist, but don’t let them dry out. They don’t need extra feeding but will lap up your monthly seaweed or fish and/or EM boost.
A year-round supply
Between my greenhouse and garden, I can grow beetroot year-round if I sow a new row once a month.
Once the soil cools mid to late autumn through mid-spring, I use the greenhouse.
Thereafter, it’s outside in the garden. Spring/ early summer sow the beetroot on the sunny side. Once the weather heats up sow it amongst bigger crops to moderate the heat.
The useful tops
Beetroot tops are edible. The leaves of some varieties are better tasting than others. If you are eating them raw, young ones are the go.
The roots need those tops, so don’t go knicking off with them while the beets are still growing. If you must, just use a leaf from each plant.
Use the older leaves off harvested beetroot as you would chard or silverbeet. If you aren’t using them for dinner, snap them off and lay them on the soil to mulch the bit you just made bare.
From top to bottom, beetroot may just be the most useful crop in the garden.
In the kitchen
If you love beetroot, you’ll want to grow your own because it’s best used fresh. It deteriorates quickly, and the flavour changes developing a bitter note that hits the back of your throat.
Fresh beetroot is yum raw or juiced. Most often I grate it into salads. I dream of doing fancier things, but am too busy growing the vegies. Dinners are wholesome, but pretty basic round here.
Roasted beetroot is quick and easy, and usually I do this right after the morning harvest. I roast them whole and peel the skins off once they’ve cooled down. They last in the fridge for a week this way and are useful in so many ways. Sometimes I puree the peeled roasties to add to humus or use in baking. I also love them boiled, in an old fashioned beetroot salad with orange juice kind of way, but then I just love beetroot full stop.