How to grow beetroot
Beetroot Growing Guide
If you’re only familiar with shop-bought beetroot, growing your own can be a minor revelation, especially as they’re so easy to grow. You can eat the beets raw when young and tender, forgo spinach to steam their tasty leaves instead, and enjoy a selection of impressively-coloured roots from bright yellow to pink-and-white-striped.
How to grow Beetroot
Benefits of growing beetroot
In years past, the odds of being served up a salad side dish without a pile of pickled beetroot was remote, in the UK at least! However, more recently the general public and top chefs have come to realise what grow-your-own gardeners already knew: that fresh beetroot is a deliciously sweet and earthy vegetable in no need of such treatment. It’s a no-fuss vegetable, too, as the roots will store for months in boxes of just-damp sand.
While the benefits of growing beets are ones you could extend to any garden-grown veg (better taste, far cheaper, personal satisfaction), it’s the number of varieties available to gardeners that is most exciting.
The traditional red colouring is down to a mixture of a purple pigment, betacyanin, and a yellow one, betaxanthin. But in various combinations they give rise to white varieties such as ‘Albina Ice’, yellow beets such as ‘Burpees Golden’, and striped Chioggia varieties such as ‘Candy Stripe’: a spectacular rounded veg with pink-and-white-ringed flesh.
Growing beetroot also means you can pick over the delicious leaves (which will usually have been removed by the time they make it to the shop floor). They’re good to eat, both raw when young and cooked when older. They have a similar taste to spinach; one of its close relatives in the plant world. The foliage is usually red-veined, and in the case of varieties such as ‘Bull’s Blood’, it’s completely red.
Preparing the ground for beetroots
Beetroot grows best in a sunny, open position in light to medium earth. If the plot was manured for a previous crop, then no extra organic matter needs to be added. If it wasn’t, then dig over the soil, adding a small amount of compost.
Soil with a high clay content is less ideal: beetroot can struggle to form properly owing to its denseness, and it can become over-saturated in wet spells and dry out too quickly in warm ones. But you can significantly improve your chances of getting a good crop of beets by incorporating a much more generous amount of compost into your bed than you ordinarily would. This will improve its structure, enabling it to hold moisture better in the summer, and warm up quicker in the spring.
You should do this as far in advance of sowing as possible, to enable the organic matter to break down and become fully incorporated into the earth. Beetroot also prefers a neutral soil with a pH of between 6.5 and 7.5.
Can I grow beetroot in winter?
In many southern and western areas of Britain, winters are now mild enough to leave beetroot sitting in the ground throughout the colder months, for lifting as required. This does away with the need to store them in boxes of sand, and the roots will be as fresh as possible when dug up from the soil.
If you want to grow beetroots for overwintering this way, then sow a maincrop variety in June or July into well-drained soil. Once the cold weather arrives, cover your crop to keep the ground from freezing solid around the roots.
Either use horticultural fleece, or, if slugs are particularly active, position cloches over the rows (though by winter the pests shouldn’t be much of a problem). This way you could be enjoying fresh, earthy roots and delicate, red-streaked greens in the depths of winter: you certainly can grow beetroot all year round!
Growing Beetroot month-by-month
Select a new position on the plot for the next beetroot crop. Begin digging over the site thoroughly and allow the frosts to break down any clods.
Start preparing the seedbed at the end of the month for the first sowing of beetroot under cloches. Remove as many stones as possible from the site, as they can impede root development.
Sow the earliest beetroots under the cover of a cloche or in a polytunnel. If you're using cloches, make sure they have been in place for at least two weeks beforehand to warm the soil.
You can now begin sowing beetroots outdoors without plant protection: this is the best time to grow beetroot. Space the rows 25cm apart, leaving 5cm between each seed pod.
Continue sowing beetroots at fortnightly intervals for a constant supply of roots in the summer.
Use netting to protect young beetroot seedlings from hungry birds. Make sure you keep the young plants well watered to prevent the roots from becoming woody.
Begin harvesting beetroots once they are between the size of golf balls and tennis balls. You should be making your final sowings early in the month to ensure a supply of roots for winter storage, or to overwinter on the plot: yes, beetroot does grow in winter!
This month is peak cropping time for beetroots.
Make sure the beetroots are lifted carefully to avoid unnecessary damage – ease them out using a hand fork or trowel. Remember to enjoy the leafy 'tops' as you would spinach.
Lift the last of your beetroot crop for winter storage – twist off the leaves, then store the swollen roots in boxes of sand in a garage or frost-proof shed. If you're planning on leaving any of your crop in the ground over winter, put cloches over the top to protect the beetroots from slugs and snails.
Check on stored beetroots – remove any that have started to rot and use up any that are drying out.
Keep checking on your stored beets – again, remove any that have started to rot and use up any that are drying out.
How to grow Beetroot from seed
Sowing beetroot outdoors
When you’re growing beetroot from seed, each ‘seed’ you will find in a packet is in fact a pod that contains a number of actual seeds. That means each one is likely to produce two or more germinated seedlings, unless you specifically buy a ‘monogerm’ variety which has been bred to produce just one. With this in mind, sowings can be made thinly, with each seed pod spaced a set distance from the next.
There’s no need to try growing beetroot in a greenhouse. Sow under cloches from mid-March for the earliest harvests – if you’re wondering ‘how long does beetroot take to grow’; in ideal conditions beets could follow in June, and you could be picking a few of the young leaves even before that.
If you want early harvests, consider beetroot ‘Boltardy’ for growing under cloches, or the ‘Pronto’ variety. These are bolt-resistant: beetroots without that quality are likely to run to seed (‘bolt’) if temperatures fall below 0ºC, which is a distinct possibility in early spring. That’s because beetroots are biennial crops – putting their energy into producing a large storage organ in their first year in order to flower and set seed the next.
The second stage is supposed to be triggered by the winter cold, but as with other biennials such as carrots and leeks, low spring temperatures can cause it to happen to beetroot plants as much as a year earlier.
Ideally, the cloches should be in place and warming the soil a fortnight or more before sowing commences, and used to protect the developing plants at least until the end of April. Before you sow the seed pods, soak them in warm water for a couple of hours to wash off any chemical growth inhibitors that may have been used to preserve the beetroot seeds.
Meanwhile, use the end of a cane to make 2cm-deep seed drills in the soil, 25cm apart, and space each beetroot seed pod 5cm apart in them. Cover them over with soil, and thoroughly water along the rows using a watering can fitted with a rose end – this will settle the earth in place.
For a regular supply of tender roots and leaves, you can keep sowing short rows at fortnightly intervals through to late June or early July. The final sowings of the year should be left to produce full-size beetroots that can be stored over winter.
Planting beetroot seedlings
Once the seedlings have surfaced, thin them to leave just the strongest where each seed pod was sown. When they have reached about 5cm in height they can be thinned to their final spacings. This is one plant every 10cm for globe-type beetroots, or one every 15cm for the larger, long-rooted cylindrical types.
Sowing early on in the season will mean cold nights and conditions that can cause crops to ‘bolt’. To be on the safe side, use a bolt-resistant variety of beetroot for early sowings such as the aptly-named ‘Boltardy’.
Growing beetroot in pots
Gardeners with just a patio or balcony can still grow beetroot, as they make great container crops. Choose a quick-growing variety that promises good baby beets for this – ‘Pronto’ is hard to fault. You can even try growing beetroot in grow bags, as long as they are baby varieties.
You will need a container or window box at least 30cm in diameter for your beetroots, with ample drainage holes. Fill it with multipurpose or grow bag compost to within an inch of the rim and firm down with your fingers. Then top it up again to bring the compost level close to the rim.
Simply push in the individual beetroot seed pods about 2cm down into the compost using your finger. They can be spaced quite thinly, leaving 6cm between each one.
Once the beetroot seedlings come through and are each 2cm in height, thin them to leave 10-12cm between each plant. You can try closer final spacings of 8cm if you want to harvest the roots very young and tender. Keep the compost moist to ensure steady growth.
Caring for your Beetroot plants + problems
Beetroots are undemanding once the seeds have successfully germinated, and the resulting seedlings have been thinned to their final spacings. You should ensure that the plants are kept moist at all times, which means checking on the crop most days in hot, dry weather.
Any beets that are allowed to dry out or that are watered in a haphazard way will tend to form woody roots, so be sure to give them a good soaking each time you water them. This will also hasten the time to harvest and help produce bushier top growth for the tender, spinach-like bonus crop.
Did you know that you can grow beetroot from beetroot tops? You won’t grow roots, just beetroot leaves! Growing beetroot from tops is pretty easy: simply leave around an inch of beet stem protruding from the beet, and set the beet tops cut-side-down in a dish of water in a sunny spot indoors. This is the easiest way to grow beetroot at home: if you’re wondering how long it takes to grow beetroot leaves this way – you can see new foliage in as little as one week.
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How to harvest Beetroot
As you’re growing beetroot, when to harvest can be a tricky choice. It’s quite simple, though: the first swollen roots may be harvested once they reach the size of a golf ball, which can be as little as two months from sowing: great news for any impatient people wondering ‘how long does it take for beetroot to grow’!
Beetroot is tender at this early stage. Lift every other plant as needed so that the remainder can grow on to reach their full size – once they have, they can be lifted to use as needed but before they have reached about 7cm across, or the size of a tennis ball, otherwise they will start to become tough and woody. Don’t forget to eat the foliage too – steamed is best for a healthy shot of beetroot benefits.
To lift a beetroot, ease it out using a hand fork or trowel while firmly holding the foliage. Take care not to damage the root itself, as it will be liable to ‘bleed’ some of its juices and therefore be unsuitable for storage.
Roots destined for winter storage should be at tennis ball size – any that are smaller will start to shrivel too quickly once they’re out of the ground. Store them in boxes of just-damp sand in a cool, dark and dry place that is also well-ventilated: a garage or frost-proof shed, for example.
Varieties of Beetroot
Beetroot varieties to try
It's easy to see why this sweet-tasting variety is a bestseller. The excellent resistance to bolting means it can be reliably sown early in the season – it's the one to choose if you're new to beetroot.
If you thought beets were only ever red in colour, a crop of these round roots can be a real jaw-dropper. These beetroots boast bright yellow flesh covered by orange skin. The flavour is superb, too.
Expect a healthy yield and a decent flavour from this cylindrical beetroot. Its longer roots make it a good choice for slicing. The beetroots are among the best for storing over winter.
If you're planning to grow beetroot in containers, slow-to-bolt 'Pablo' is a safe bet. The sweet-tasting roots develop quickly, providing crops of 'baby' veg when they are golf ball size.