Beetroot is an easy and rewarding crop that can be harvested fresh for 9 months of the year, and stores well.
Beetroot seeds are actually seed clusters, and this means that thinning is always required. Beetroot prefers no competition, but puts down a tap root which is likely to disturb its neighbours when pulled out of the earth. So instead of pulling to thin the seedlings, use a pair of small, sharp scissors to cut the smaller ones off once they are an inch tall.
Beetroot can be sown direct when the weather is warm enough (from April in most of the UK) or planted in modules a few weeks earlier. Sow the seeds 1cm deep. If you’re sowing into a pot then plant several, thin them, and then carefully separate and plant them out when the first few leaves have developed. Don’t let them get too big or you’ll have a tangled mass of roots to deal with. They prefer a well-drained loam with plenty of organic matter, and don’t like to dry out.
As growth is slow and predators are hungry early in the year, the first seedlings are likely to need protection. Copper tape applied to a ring cut from a plastic bottle, placed around the plant and pushed into the earth, will keep slugs out until the plants are big enough to grow away from any damage. Beetroot can continue to be sown right up to temperatures of 25°C.
While beetroot are easy to grow in an outside bed in the spring and summer, they rarely do well through the winter without protection. Slugs will probably find them first, and then frost will kill them off. A thick mulch might protect them from the frost, but not from the slugs! In a polytunnel, however, beetroot can be sown from mid-July until at least the end of August, and will overwinter quite happily. A staggered sowing through this period will supply you with beetroot from November through the winter and the hungry gap beyond.
Beetroot seedlings are slow to get started, so be patient with them. Thin to avoid crowding, and keep the ground around them as weed-free as possible as any competition will set them back. Once the plants are established this is less likely to be a problem: beetroot leaves create a canopy which shades the area making it more difficult for weeds to get established. When thinning larger plants, take every other one in a row. This allows those left more room to develop.
Harvesting and storage
Beetroot leaves are very similar to chard and just need steaming for a few minutes to make a delicious addition to meals. Some varieties (‘White’) are grown more for the leaves than the root, but leaves from any beetroot are great. If you notice leaves wilting even when there’s plenty of water in the soil, it’s probably a sign that the plants are ready to harvest. Beetroot can be harvested any time you think the roots are big enough, and may become woody if left in the ground for too long. Some varieties are more prone to this than others, so read the variety descriptions carefully.
In the polytunnel, overwintered beetroot plants attempt to bolt as the days lengthen in March and April. You can delay this for a few weeks by picking off all but the youngest leaves, but the roots should be harvested fairly quickly before woodiness sets in.
Towards the end of autumn, any plants remaining in outside beds can be lifted and stored for the winter. Only store roots which are completely free of damage, as damaged roots will rot and might spoil the entire batch. Line the bottom of a box or crate with a damp (not wet) packing material such as sand, straw, sawdust or compost. Remove the leaves from the beetroot by twisting them off about an inch from the neck (don’t cut them, as the root will bleed sap and go soft more quickly). Lay them down in the box so that they don’t touch each other, put another layer of packing material on top, and repeat until the box is full. Store the root box in a dark, cool but frost-free place until needed. It’s a good idea to check the roots every few weeks in case any are spoiling.
Beetroot can be eaten raw, but the easiest way to cook it is by boiling. Wash the roots in clean water without trimming or peeling them (this helps avoid loss of colour and flavour) and put them into boiling water for 20-30 minutes. Rinse them under a cold tap, and the skin just peels away. There will still be plenty of residual heat in the roots, so set the peeled beetroot to one side for a minute or two before serving. Beetroot can also be pickled, and are great in salads, soups and stews or just as a side vegetable.
Beetroot is a biennial (which means that it can grow over two years) and will flower and set seed in its second year. Don’t save seed from any plants which bolt in their first year! Plants overwintered under cover can be left where they are to flower. Alternatively, store some of the best roots and plant them out again in the spring. A tall central stem develops on which the seeds form. When the whole plant begins to die back, simply cut off the stem and hang it upside-down in a cool, dry and shaded place to dry further. Once dry, the mature seed clusters can easily be stripped off by hand and should keep for six years. Beetroot varieties will cross with each other and also with chard, so either keep them well separated or bag the flower heads.