Beets are a great crop for the first-time gardener – resilient, undemanding and unfussy about soil type. What’s more, you can harvest two different, delicious crops from the same plant, making it a really worthwhile vegetable to make space for in your garden.
Here’s our simple five-step guide to growing brilliant beets for the first time. You won’t be able to resist growing it again and again!
1. Preparing Soil for Beets
Beets will grow well in most soil types, but they dislike excessively alkaline or acid soil (simple do-it-yourself soil pH testing kits are available at good garden centers). Fertile soil is a must, so dig in or mulch with well-rotted compost prior to sowing.
Loose, light soil will make it easy for the roots to swell. If your soil is very compacted you’ll need to churn up the top several inches with a garden fork and rake it well to break up clods of earth.
Growing in raised beds and containers is also an option, but make sure they don’t dry out.
2. Sowing Beet Seeds
What looks like a single spiky beet seed is actually a protective capsule enclosing two or three true seeds. This means that for each seed capsule you plant, you will need to snip off at least one seedling with scissors or a sharp knife, to give the remaining seedling the space to grow on.
A few beet varieties are available which produce just one seed per capsule, thereby avoiding the need for thinning. These are known as ‘monogerm’ varieties and will usually be marked as such on the seed packet.
Sow beet seeds in rows 10cm (4in) apart, with a row gap of 20cm (8in), or in blocks 15cm (6in) apart each way. Make a hole about 2cm (1in) deep with a dibber or your finger then drop the seed capsule in. Be patient: beets can take a little while to germinate, especially those earliest sowings. Germination can be patchy, so if there are any gaps after germination just pop in new seed capsules.
Pre-warming the soil with a cold frame or row cover will help you to get the earliest sowings off to a good start, but don’t be tempted to start beet seeds too early as this often results in the plant ‘bolting’ (flowering), which means that the vegetable is past its prime. Our Garden Planner can advise you on when to sow beets (and lots of other crops) in your area, using climate data from your nearest weather station for maximum accuracy.
For a continuous supply of beets, sow short rows or small blocks of beets at intervals over the summer.
3. Growing Beets On
Throughout the growing season, sprinkle thin layers of grass clippings around your beets every time you mow your grass (assuming you don’t use any weedkillers on your lawn). The clippings will add small amounts of additional nitrogen to the soil, which your beets will love, while also helping to retain moisture and keep weeds down.
Beets shouldn’t need any additional watering unless the soil looks like it will dry out completely. In hot climates you may find that shade cloth is necessary to prevent bolting in summer.
4. Harvesting Beets
Beets can be harvested two ways: for leaves and for roots. Twist off the young leaves as you need them for salads and sandwiches, but only take a few from each plant or the roots will struggle to fatten up.
The roots can be harvested at any size that suits you, from ‘baby’ beets up to chunky tennis ball size. Don’t leave them in the ground for too long though, as they can become tough and woody.
Harvest the roots by gathering all the leaf stems together in one hand and pulling upwards gently. The root should easily come free from the soil but a hand fork can be used for additional leverage if required, especially with cylindrical varieties. Twist off the leaves, leaving a generous stump of stems on top of the beet. Don’t cut the leaves off or trim the roots, or they will ‘bleed’ and make a terrible mess!
5. Cooking and Eating Beets
Foodies will tell you that beets should taste ‘earthy’, but I have a sweet tooth and prefer a sweeter beetroot (the variety ‘Boltardy’ never disappoints). Roasting beetroot is a trendy way to prepare it, but I find that boiling preserves a sweeter flavor – try both methods though, as your preference may differ to mine.
Fresh, boiled, roasted or pickled – how you prepare your beets is up to you! Why not grate the raw roots and pair with the young leaves in a salad, make soup, or even – I kid you not – bake a cake?
It’s worth mentioning that as well as the traditional red beets, yellow and white varieties are available which won’t stain your fingers.
If you have a favorite beet recipe or a variety that does exceptionally well for you, please share it in the comments below – we’d love to hear about it!