Beetroot are in the large Amaranthaceae family, formerly called Chenopodiaceae. They are part of the subfamily Betoideae, which includes chard and leaf beet.
Beet plants, in terms of productive capability, are classed in four groups: Leaf Beet, Garden Beet, Fodder Beet and Sugar Beet. In the roots of all these, the sweetness is a common thread, although less so for leaf beet and chard.
Sugar beets account for a third of the world’s sugar production. Fodder beets or mangel-wurzels are energy foods for animals and can also be converted into wine.
Beetroot (Garden Beet) are sweet at all stages and the most flavoursome root for us to eat, whether small or large.
- Days from seed to first harvest: 70–90
Beetroot seeds sownBeetroot ready to harvestEarly springThrough summerEarly summerThrough autumn and for winter storage
In temperate climates, the season of harvest runs from late spring to early winter. That leaves five or six months with no harvest, yet most of that time is covered by beetroot in store, from the final harvests.
- Best climate is temperate conditions, neither freezing nor too hot and dry. In cold climates there is time for one beetroot harvest, from sowing under cover in late spring.
Why grow them
Beetroot has been rediscovered as a great vegetable. In the UK, at least, it was in the background, often eaten as a pickle with a strong vinegar flavour. Now we realise that it makes a wonderful dish when, for example, grated in salads with apples (my favourite), as well as roasted or sautéed among other vegetables at almost any time of year.
There are the famous Borscht soups, so appreciated in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish cuisine. When they are made using sweet, flavoursome, homegrown beetroot, simple food becomes truly exciting. I often think that elaborate recipes are not really needed when you have fully flavoured ingredients, whose only need is a slight embellishment, or mixing with another fully flavoured ingredient!
- It is a myth that beetroot get woody when large. That may happen from using chemical fertiliser, but I have never experienced it with growing them in no dig, healthy soil.
Suitable for containers/shade?
Beetroot is ideal for growing in pots and grow bags. Especially when you pop in multisown clumps, as I suggest below. (See also Lesson 16 of Course 2 for examples.)
They can grow in shade too.
Conditions for success
Tiny beet seedlings in the garden are vulnerable to pests such as woodlice, slugs and birds. Many gardeners have given up growing beetroot because of this difficulty, as they never get a harvest.
However, with the module sowing that I explain here, you can succeed with your sowings every time. So it’s worth investing in equipment for propagation.
- When grown in healthy fertile soil, beetroot grows fast and should swell nicely. You have the option to eat it small as baby beetroot, or large for cooking and grating.
There are four colours of beetroot commonly available. In order of popularity, they are red, pink, yellow and white. Flavour-wise I have tried several of these over the years and, as much as I would like to say that one of the unusual colours is my favourite, I still prefer the red ones. They have a greater depth of flavour and more earthiness.
If you like the flavour to be sweeter, but with less body, try yellow or white ones. While Chioggia beets have a strong, earthy and almost metallic flavour, similar to raw beet leaves.
Until 2020, the top variety I recommended was Boltardy. However, its seed/varietal maintenance has slipped in recent years. The result is increasing numbers of misshapen roots with less intense colour, and a higher proportion of thick-stemmed leaves compared to root.
I corresponded with the head of a seed company about this, and he acknowledged that there is less roguing happening in fields of beetroot that are growing through the second spring and summer, to produce flowers followed by seed. He didn’t elaborate on why the roguing is not happening.
My understanding is that it’s because seed companies are investing more in hybrid varieties, which are more profitable for them. Therefore they spend less on traditional methods such as paying farmers to rogue out the misshapen and wrongly coloured roots, in the case of beetroot.
- Boltardy’s hybrid equivalent is Pablo F1. They both resist bolting, therefore you can sow a month earlier than other varieties, with more likelihood of beetroot to eat by early summer and less chance of a flowering stem. Should that happen, remove the beetroot immediately, to eat before woodiness happens.
- Beetroot can be tall as well as round, and Cylindra is a long variety that sits mostly above ground.
- Cheltenham Green Top is an excellent variety for regions with cold winters because it develops into the soil rather like a carrot, and with fat shoulders; another virtue is its excellent sweetness. The name Green Top comes from its leaves being more green than red, and certainly good for eating like leaf beet. That, by the way, is not the same as true spinach, but a reasonable substitute.
- Robuschka is a good variety to sow from April to June and it stores well through winter, in a box.
- Bulls Blood grows leaves of almost crimson colour, excellent when picked small for brightening up salads.
Contrary to popular belief, you can successfully transplant beetroot. Propagate a clump of four seedlings to transplant all together. This works well because, like all seedlings, infant beetroots are healthier and stronger for being with their friends. They also prosper under cover, with no birds pecking their leaves.
- Germination takes 5–14 days, according to temperature and age of seed.
An ideal germination temperature is 21–25 °C/70–77 °F. So, if your house is heated anywhere near this level, you can germinate new sowings inside for a week or so.
Summer sowing is easy, there being no need for extra warmth. Multisow in modules, for transplants ready to pop in as soon as a first planting finishes. For example, the photo below shows broccoli finishing in June, while beetroot seedlings are growing until three weeks old. The overlap that occurs when they are both growing means that we are adding three weeks to the growing season.
Late winter is possible if not too cold, otherwise early spring is fine. Here I find that 1st March is reliable, always under cover. The last sowing date depends on your level of autumn warmth; here, for example, it’s late June, for large roots to store. Later sowings still work, if you are happy with small beetroot. I would try a few dates to see what works for you.
There is a special grade of seed called monogerm, which germinates one seedling per seed. Natural beetroot seed is a cluster, and each ‘seed’ germinates one to four seedlings. Depending on the age of seeds, there are some which do not germinate at all.
- I find that having three or four seeds per cell reliably achieves four seedlings per cell.
- If more than this germinate, pull out the weakest ones after about two weeks.
Seedlings are best planted small, less than four weeks old, so there is no need to pot on.
Pop your transplants in deep enough that their little stems are below soil level. There is no need to fill the hole.
You can interplant in early summer between garlic and onions, because they finish by or before midsummer. Also lettuce, if it will be finished within a month of beetroot going in.
Small transplants with three to four true leaves grow fine. Being in clumps with their mates for company helps small seedlings to settle and grow.
From late March to midsummer. Just two sowings/plantings can give beetroot for ten months of eating. The first planting here is late March through to mid-April, and the second planting is mid-June to early July.
When soil is fertile, and your intention is to have three to four medium-sized beetroot in clumps, space at 30–35 cm/12–14 in. This spacing can give large roots over time, especially when you keep thinning out the planting with regular harvests. See below for harvest methods.
Beetroot are quite thirsty but they also tolerate soil being dry. Sometimes you see their leaves wilting on a hot afternoon and then, by nightfall, the leaves are fine again. They are simply not able to grow during a sunny afternoon if the soil has insufficient moisture.
In dry conditions, when leaves are wilting somewhat, water twice weekly with a decent amount. Within reason, the more you give, the bigger the harvest. However, sweeter beetroot result from the soil not being fully moist all of the time.
Extra mulch to retain moisture?
In dry climates, a mulch of undecomposed materials may be worthwhile. In damp climates, this may encourage slugs and woodlice.
Neither is needed – see information on harvesting below.
How to judge readiness
This is entirely your choice, whether you like small beetroot or large ones. Homegrown beetroot are more tender than ones you buy in a store, therefore your large beetroot can be as juicy as little ones.
How to pick
Twisting is the method, rather than pulling. When you see a clump with a beetroot you want, put your hand around it and rotate. This snaps off the small roots below, and the beetroot eases free without disturbing its neighbours.
When to pick and how often
This depends on soil fertility, moisture levels, the time of year, and how closely you planted your clumps or spaced your roots.
- Through late spring and early summer, it’s good to keep twisting out larger beetroot whenever you see them, to allow smaller ones to grow more. Twist out one per clump initially.
- Through autumn, it’s also about having large roots to store. Harvest the smallest beetroot first, to allow larger ones to grow even more. They store better because they have less surface area in relation to the middle.
- Aspire to have only medium and large size beetroot by late autumn, when you can make a final harvest to put in boxes somewhere cool and moist. It may freeze a little where you store, but not by much.
Summer beetroot stay in good condition for two to four weeks, gradually softening. Keep cool but not necessarily in a fridge.
- Beetroot can stand freezing to the leaves without damage, but the roots go soft and rot if frozen solid. Harvest before frosts of about –3 °C /27 °F or lower, unless your beetroot are well buried by mulch.
Store the last harvests through winter in a shed, unwashed and simply in boxes. Beetroot store well and it’s possible to eat this wonderful, homegrown food for ten or eleven months of the year.
This is not easy and requires much time and space. Select your finest beetroots in terms of shape and colour during the winter. Plant them out in the spring, about 2.5 cm/1 in below soil level at a spacing of 37 cm/15 inches. After leaves, by late spring, you have a flowering stem that may need support, followed in summer by seed clusters. These need to be dry at harvest.
This is not feasible in small gardens, and I recommend seeking advice from professionals before attempting it. For example, to be sure how many plants you need so that cross-pollination is successful.
Any location which has many sparrows will mean you need to cover beetroot with either mesh or netting, because sparrows love to peck the leaf margins.
Deer are browsers and chomp mouthfuls of leaf ends, as you can see in the photo further down; they are attracted to red leaves. Bird netting works against deer, simply draped on top.
Which pests are likely, and when
Leaf miners are pretty common, as you can see in the photo below. However, in my experience, they look worse than they are, and beetroot grow despite them so no need to take preventative measures.
Rodents are a big problem for beetroot in some gardens, for example, rats, mice, and voles (and perhaps gophers in North America). Keeping them out of your beetroot patch is almost impossible, so consult local knowledge about how to reduce their population.
Beetroot are susceptible to the horrible pyralid weedkiller, which is sometimes present in potting compost if its ingredients included grass clippings that have been sprayed with this poison. The problem is that you never see it, and the first indication is seedlings looking unhappy, with poor colour, and the central and newest leaves being deformed and unable to grow much.
The only remedy is to buy different compost and start again, and to report the problem to the authorities in your country. In the UK, the authorities are not helping a great deal to solve this difficulty.
If your beetroot leaves are more red than green, this suggests a lack of nutrients. The photo below illustrates this very well because the beetroot leaves are not unhealthy. The problem was that they simply did not grow in these pots of compost, during the whole month of July. The only time when dark red leaves are good is on the Bulls Blood variety.
Through summer, your beetroot bed gradually clears itself with each harvest you take. Always remove any weeds you see while there, and then, after final harvest, the ground is ready for succeeding vegetables.
After final harvest in late autumn or early winter, rake level, then spread around 2.5 cm/1 in of compost on the surface, to protect soil and feed soil life through the winter.
Spring plantings of beetroot can be followed with transplants of leeks, autumn or spring cabbage, kale, autumn salads including chicory for radicchio, or you could make a sowing of carrots for an autumn harvest.