I am not sure if sales have altered, but a few years ago beetroot seed was the most popular vegetable seed sold. I find this remarkable because, when I talk to people, so many people say they dislike, or even hate, beetroot. Although I don’t share this aversion I understand their thinking because the roots are sweet and earthy and rather strange as a vegetable. Ignoring the nutritional riches that they contain they are more adaptable than used for just pickling.
Beetroot is easy to grow, has few pests and has the advantage that it can be eaten at almost every stage.
But first the basics. Beetroot is basically the same plant as leaf beet, perpetual spinach and Swiss chard, all forms of the native sea beet. We are most familiar with red beetroot but there is also yellow or golden, white and striped beet. When buying seeds you have a choice of F1 hybrids, which tend to be vigorous and more uniform, ordinary hybrids, and then some that are called ‘monogerm’. When you sow beet seeds the thing you actually sow is not a seed but a fruit or nutlet that contains several seeds. When these germinate the three or four seedlings need to be thinned quickly. Monogerm varieties produce just one seed per fruit so eliminating this problem – obviously an advantage for commercial growers – hence their devlopment.
You can then choose from round beet or cylindrical and long-rooted kinds. The long-rooted kinds with tapering roots are the least common. Though initially odd, the cylindrical kinds, which grow partly above the soil surface are a good idea, especially if you are going to slice and pickle them – lots of evenly sized slices!
I would argue that there is not a huge difference in the flavour of most of the reds though the yellows are suggested to be sweeter. Maybe it is just me but I found that, when eating yellow beet raw, I found they made my throat sore – strange. Because the colouring in beet is part of the point, and nutritional benefit, I can’t see a lot of point in white beet. I need to investigate how useful the colour is from a nutritional point of view since, in my experience, often with great alarm, I find that the colour passes through the body unchanged!
Beetroot can be sown from March (if the soil is warm) though till June. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, with a few leaves, they should be thinned to about 5cm apart. These young seedlings can be used as salad leaves. As with any thinning, choose a dry day, preferably not too hot, and water immediately after thinning to prevent wilting. If you can water the night before so much the better. Keep the rows weedfree and keep them watered in dry weather. As soon as the roots start to swell you can pull some roots along the row, leaving the remainders to become bigger. From an April sowing you should have some baby beet by August with the remaining getting bigger and bigger till autumn. You can leave the roots in the soil to harvest through autumn but it is best to lift them, screw off the leaves and store them, unwashed, in moist compost in a shed for winter use. Storing in sand is traditional but bringing sand into the kitchen and potentially a meal, is not my idea of wisdom.
Beetroot can be grown successfully in containers too. The seeds are large so you can easily space-sow them 4-5cm apart in a pot or tub. You can also sow radishes among them because they will mature quickly and be removed before the beet are too crowded.
Beetroot is not affected by many pests. Anyone who hates beet will not be surprised that not much else wants to eat it either. The leaves are frequently attacked by leaf miner but this is usually just cosmetic. Rats will chew the roots in autumn – if you have them around. The leaves are also attacked by mildew in dry weather which will reduce vigour but it is not usually too much of an issue unless you want to use the leaves as spinach substitute. Slugs and cutworms may attack the roots but, because they grow above the soil, the damage is usually not severe.
‘Detroit Globe’ and ‘Boltardy’ are the standard types and there is nothing wrong with them. I have tried F1 hybrids including ‘Pablo’, ‘Wodan’ and ‘Red Ace’ and I think they have better colour and finer texture. Beet seed is not expensive and unless you need to grow bucket-loads I think the more expensive F1s are worth the expense. All three F1s have RHS AGMs, as does the old ‘Boltardy’. For pink and white rings choose ‘Barbabietola de Chiogga .
You can see an older post when I grew 18 different beetroot here.