Beetroot is a king amongst roots. Packed with as much nutritional goodness as it is flavour, this versatile veggie has more combinations than a rubix cube. Put ‘beetroot recipes’ into google and you will lose yourself in an endless abyss of possible dishes. The best thing is, they’re uber-easy to grow.
Beets are in the same family as chard and spinach, so you can eat both the roots and the leaves. The most common ways a beetroot meets its end in the UK are probably chopped up to add sweetness to a salad, or pickled and sliced to inject some amazing tang into a sandwich.
However, my personal favourite is beetroot and horseradish chutney – it gives an incredible kick to a plate of cold beef and cheese, or it’s even great on its own with a glass of red wine and a pretzel. Delicious.
There’s evidence of humans using beetroot all the way back to Neolithic times in Egypt. However, historically people only used the leaves, and then it was mostly medicinally. The Assyrians even claimed that they were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!
It seems that no one really spoke of using the roots until a Roman chef named Apicius, who started putting it in broths and salads.
Beetroot is almost freakishly healthy – a genuine superfood. Packed with antioxidants, carbohydrates, potassium, fibre and folic acid, beetroot is a favourite ingredient in healthy shakes and smoothies. I won’t list all of the nutrients and benefits because we’ll be here all day, but trust me – in this case, it’s time to get back to your roots.
First off, as usual, you want well-drained, fertile soil, fine tilled and free of stones and weeds. Beetroot grows well in pots too, but only the round varieties, not the cylindrical breeds.
Dig in a bucketful of well-rotted compost or organic matter, and for the best crop also use a general purpose fertiliser.
Start in March and sow every few weeks for a regular supply through the summer. If you’re the early bird type you can plant in February, but you will want to use a fleece or cloche. You’ll should finish sowing sometime in August to be in line with the first frosts, but you will need to keep very on top of watering if you are planting in August, otherwise the summer heat will wither your beautiful baby beets. Some people just stick to sowing between April and July to keep things simple.
Beets grow best in rows about 30cm apart and 10cm apart within the row. Sow the seeds in a 2cm deep trench, and thin out once seedlings are about 2.5cm tall. Don’t chuck away the seedlings that get thinned though – keep the young leaves for a tasty salad.
Caring for beetroot is wonderfully easy. Just keep the weeds out and the water in, and you will be fine.
Water every week and a half to two weeks during dry spells, otherwise growth could be stunted. If they are still not growing the way you’d like, add some fertiliser.
The most common problem is bolting. You can buy bolt-resistant varieties as long as you aren’t growing for seed. Also, planting at correct times and keeping soil moist will keep your beets from flowering early.
Roots are ready in as little as 7 weeks if picked young, but can be grown on for around 12 weeks to get larger roots. Think somewhere between a golf ball and a tennis ball. Roots should be at least 2.5cm in diameter to be worth it, and any longer than 12 weeks they will probably turn coarse and horrible. This usually works out so that you are harvesting from June to October.
Roots should pull out easily by hand. In heavy soils a trowel may be necessary, but be careful not to cut into the roots as this will reduce storage life. Cutting the tops off leads to the plants bleeding their juice (which means they lose their colour and flavour too), so remove the tops by twisting them off about 5cm from the crown with your hands. And don’t throw these away – they are packed with flavour, and can be cooked and eaten like spinach.
A great way to store beetroots is layered in sand in a frost-free, dry environment. The sand will keep them from sprouting and retain their remarkable flavour.