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HOW TO GROW BEETROOT
Beetroot has undergone a huge change over the last 1,000 years. Originally it was used primarily for its leaves which are edible. Over the years its roots started to be used for food but they were long and tapering and not particularly sweet.
In the 1800's beetroot became more popular in Europe because new varieties were bred with far sweeter roots. The British championed preserving beetroots in vinegar which some think is a particularly unappetising way of preserving this delicious vegetable.
GROWING BEETROOT CALENDAR
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SOWING BEETROOT SEED
For more detailed instructions on how to sow beetroot seed, click here.
For more detailed instructions on caring for beetroot click here.
As far as soil type and position go beetroot is probably the most tolerant of all vegetables. It does of course have preferences and these are for a light soil which can hold moisture and a position in full sun - these will bring out their best growing capabilities.
However, even in heavy soil and partial shade they will still deliver a good crop. Beetroot do very well when grown in containers, see our section on this lower down this page.
Beetroot's only absolute dislikes are soil which has recently had manure applied to it or a stony soil. Neither will stop them producing a crop but the beetroots produced will very likely be malformed and forked. If you enjoy unusually shaped beetroot give it a try, but if you are looking for perfectly formed beetroot globes then give manure and stones a miss!
Beetroot will grow fine if sown in the soil outside around the time of the last frost for your area which is the fourth week of April. One common mistake is to sow a large number of beetroot seeds all at the same time. Try to avoid this, rather sow a small number of seeds every two weeks. Beetroot seed can be sown any time up to mid July and sowing at two week intervals will give you lots of this crop over a long time.
Many people notice that a few of the seeds might float to the surface of the water, whereas the majority of them will sink to the bottom. Ignore this and use all the seeds.
First choose a site as explained above, then dig it well scattering in a handful of bonemeal or blood fish and bone every square metre / yard. While you are digging remove any stones you come across as well as any weeds. Now rake the surface of the soil so that it is fairly level and the soil is crumbly.
Draw out a groove in the soil which is approximately 2cm (¾in) deep and drop one seed into it every 5cm / 2ins. Gently draw soil over the seeds so that it is level with the surrounding soil. If the soil is at all dry, gently water over the sown seeds. Place a marker at the head of the row to show what variety you have sown and where the seeds are planted. If you are planting more than one row of beetroot leave about 20cm / 8ins between each row.
When the seedlings emerge keep a very good eye out for birds because they can decimate a crop of beetroot in a matter of a couple of days. See our pest and disease section towards the end of this article for more details on how to prevent the birds from eating your crop.
HOW TO GROW EARLY BEETROOT
There are two common methods for growing an early crop of beetroot, the first being to start them off under cloches. Place the cloche(s) over the area where the seeds are to be sown a couple of weeks before sowing. This will warm up the ground and allow the seeds to germinate about a month earlier than normal. Sow the seeds in the fourth week of March and leave the cloches in place for six weeks or so. Unlikely though it may be at this time of year, water if the conditions under the cloches are dry.
After a week or so the seedlings should appear and the cloches will, conveniently, provide protection against bird damage. Remove the cloches six weeks after sowing the seed. This method will provide you with beetroot two to three weeks earlier than normal.
The second method to early beetroot is to sow the seeds in modules indoors / heated greenhouse. The best time to do this is the second week of April. Ensure they are watered well and the seedlings will emerge in a week's time. After another two weeks harden the seedlings off and then plant them out after another week. This method will provide you with beetroot two earlier than normal.
Beetroot are one of the easiest vegetables to care for, simply keep the area weeded and water if conditions become very dry. When water is needed, gives lots of it infrequently rather than watering a little and often. The seeds take about two to three weeks to emerge after sowing.
The only other care needed is to thin out the seedlings to avoid overcrowding. This is best done in two goes with the first thinning occurring when the seedlings have grown to about 1½cm / ½in tall. With beetroot seed each "seed pod" is actually three or four seeds and therefore two or thee seedlings are quite likely to emerge from each "seed pod". Thin the seedlings to 2cm (¾in) apart.
The timing of the second thinning is rather variable. We thin our beetroot for the second time when the plants are about 8cm / 3in high because at this stage the thinned plants will have micro beetroot roots which are deliciously sweet to eat. Whenever you thin them, leave the remaining beetroot 10cm / 4in apart.
If you want fully grown beetroot then harvest them when the root is slightly larger than a golf ball which will be some time around the fourth week of July. For the sweetest and most delicious beetroot though, harvest them a week or so before that when they are the size of a golf ball or slightly smaller.
To harvest them grip the foliage as near to the beetroot root as possible and gently tease it from the soil. Harvesting is easiest when the soil is slightly damp.
The leaves are edible and excellent for bringing colour to a salad or as a spinach alternative. The tastiest leaves are the young ones, leaves from fully grown beetroot can taste slightly bitter.
GROWING BEETROOT IN CONTAINERS
Beetroot is an excellent crop for growing in containers or raised beds because the light soil is ideal for them and ensures perfectly formed roots. All the procedures for sowing seed and general care are exactly the same when growing beetroot in containers with a few exceptions. Choose a container which is at least 45cm / 18in wide and make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom.
Place a few stones in the base of the container and fill with standard multi-purpose compost. Sow the seeds as described above. Place the container in a sunny position throughout the growing season.
Beetroot in containers are likely to need more watering than normal because the container will not retain moisture as well as open soil does. A fortnightly feed with liquid tomato fertiliser will also be needed to supply them with a good source of nutrients.
RECOMMENDED VARIETIES OF BEETROOT
Beetroot first became popular as a source of food during the 1700s and was extensively used in Eastern Europe because of its resistance to cold weather conditions. Many different shapes and colours have been developed over the years and our extensive guide to popular beetroot varieties will help you select the best variety for your needs. Click here to go to that page now.
HOW TO STORE BEETROOT
Beetroot is a very popular vegetable in Eastern Europe because it can withstand a few degrees of frost when left in the ground with no damage being done. This extends the vegetable season in some cold (and relatively poor countries) by three or four weeks.
I lived in Moscow for six months several years ago and became interested in how they preserve their root vegetables for winter consumption. After all, some of the people in countries with cold winters depend on vegetables for their very life during winter - a serious matter for them.
What I learnt is this, yes, beetroot harvested before a hard frost occurs can be stored for three or four months. In this way it can be a valuable source of food. But it never tastes anywhere near as good as beetroot harvested fresh from the ground when young and tender. If you accept that, then read on, if you want some airy, fairy stories about how beetroot can be stored in perfect condition throughout the winter then look elsewhere.
The very best way to store beetroot is to trim the top stalk to about 3cm making sure to remove any leaves. Don't trim the root end at all. When you pull the beetroot from the ground shake off any excess earth but never wash them clean. They may look better washed but they store far better slightly muddy.
If there is any sun still remaining then lie them exposed to the sun for 12 to 24 hours. If sunshine is not available then leave them for 12 hours in a cool room. This will slightly harden the skin and prevent water evaporation during storage.
Line the base of of a plastic box with 2cm of multipurpose compost or sand, both are fine. Only use wood boxes if you are sure that mice and other rodents won't have access to your crop in storage. Place the beetroot in the box so they are not touching each other.
Cover the bottom layer of beetroot with 2cm of compost / sand and repeat. You may well be able to get three layers (but no more) if the box is high enough.
Store the boxes in a dark and cool but frost free place. The ideal temperature is about 34°F although this is rarely achievable in the UK. Your beetroot should remain edible in these conditions for about three months.
Don't be under any illusions, it will not taste perfect if eaten as you would a fresh beetroot but it will still be edible. In Russia and other neighbouring countries they get round this lack of "fresh from the ground" taste and texture by using the stored beetroots in hearty stews and soups.
Borscht with stored beetroot
Borscht is the most well known example of how to use stored beetroot to best effect. It makes a truly delicious meal and all the the slightly stringy texture of stored beetroot is lost. Learn from those who depend on this food for their survival and don't believe too much in book and website articles promising you perfect beetroot after two months storage.
Beetroot are normally free from pests and diseases even when not looked after well. There are a few pests and diseases that can attack them which we list below.
BIRDS EATING / PECKING OUT SEEDLINGS
In some areas birds can be a real problem when the plants are small. The birds eat the foliage and pull up the seedlings. The only solution is to cover the growing area either in horticultural fleece or with cloches. The fleece / cloches can be removed when the foliage is about 10cm / 4in high because the birds are no longer interested in them at this stage.
Our particular solution to bird damage and beetroots is based on the fact that we grow about 25 of them each year. Over time we have collected large, clear plastic squash bottles and we cut the bottoms off these and use them as mini-cloches over individual beetroot seedlings as they appear. It's important to put them in place the minute you see a seedling appear because this is when the birds (blackbirds and pigeons we suspect) find them most tasty. We remove the bottles when the seedlings have grown to about 8cm / 3in high. At that point the birds seem to loose interest.
There are two main causes of small roots growing on beetroots. Firstly the plants may not be spaced far enough apart. Thin seedlings to 10cm / 4in when they are large enough to handle. Rows should be about 25cm / 10in apart.
The other common cause of small beetroot roots is feeding them with a high nitrogen fertiliser such as Growmore. If you want to feed your beetroot then blood, fish and bone is a good choice because it releases nutrients slowly and over a long time. Feeding with a nitrogen fertiliser encourages leafy growth at the expense of good sized bulbs. Don't put manure (which may be high in nitrogen) on the growing area for six moths before sowing seed.
RUST ON BEETROOT FOLIAGE
Occasionally this affects beetroot plants especially if they are grown under cover. The symptoms are small, raised brown-red spots which appear on the underside of the leaves. The disease will sap strength from the plant and result in malformed or small roots.
To avoid rust ensure there is plenty of air circulation especially in damp conditions. Pick off any infected leaves (or parts of them) and burn them. There are sprays available at garden centres to control this fungal disease. The spores are spread by wind and can easily be spread from plant to plant.
Also known as whitefly and greenfly these little insects look translucent and can be a big problem for many plants. Beetroot leaves are not usually attacked but occasionally they can be. Spray with a pint of water to which a few drops of washing up liquid has been added.
If the root of your beetroot is being eaten it is almost always by a rodent of some sort. Mice and voles are by far the most common pests to cause this damage. A frequent occurrence is that beetroot has been grown successfully for several years in the garden or allotment and then one year, out of the blue, the damage appears.
What's happened is that a family of mice or voles have started to nest nearby and found your patch of beetroot. They can decimate tens of plants a night or may only nibble at a couple of them.
To deter mice or voles you only have two options, trap them (and/or kill them at the same time) or lay bait to poison them. Neither option is appealing to most gardeners but first there is one step you can take to prevent them in the first place or make them move of their own accord.
Mice and voles nest in loose vegetation which they gather to provide them with warmth in cooler times. Forget hoping to see them during the day because they are night time animals. To deter them, clear up your garden of loose straw, grass cuttings, plant matter and similar materials which they can use to make a nest.
Open compost heaps are ideal homes for mice and voles. They burrow down a few inches and the rotting compost keeps them and their offspring warm and safe. Frequent turning of the compost heap will disturb them and their nest and eventually they will move elsewhere.
As for trapping them there are two types of trap for mice and voles. The first type of trap is designed to kill small rodents and they are known as "break-back" traps. These are the ones sold in hardware stores to kill mice in the home. Over the years the consensus of opinion is that the best bait is peanut butter. For voles chopped up fresh carrots work best.
When the mice / voles are killed by the trap either bury them or bag them up and put them in the rubbish bin.
The downside of these traps is that they can attract other beneficial animals such as birds and the traps often don't kill them, they just trap them and they die a painful death. Kids and adults alike can also be caught out.
The second type is designed to trap the rodents rather than kill them. By law you need to inspect these traps twice daily to avoid undue pain and stress. The rodents will also need to moved to a new location and a couple of miles away is generally recommended if you want to stop them returning.
Poisoned bait is intended to attractive to small rodents but at the same time kill them. They are rarely successful in gardens and allotments. You also have the added danger of children or other animals being poisoned by the bait.
If you have any questions or comments about growing beetroot, their pests and diseases or anything else, leave them using the form below. Our experts will answer them as soon as possible.
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