With some vegetables, I can do everything right and sometimes it just goes wrong. Last year was officially a bad pea year – I sowed seeds in root-trainers in March, as I always do, and raised them undercover in one of my small plastic greenhouses. They were strong seedlings, but after planting out into a bed that April, they failed to grow and I had to start all over again. This year, my peas have been fantastic, and yet I had followed the same routine.
But until this year, I have never been able to grow a successful crop of beetroot, no matter what I did. They have always been small, or the seeds struggled to germinate, even if I waited until the soil was warm enough, or the ones that did were nibbled by slugs and birds. I always sowed seeds directly into the soil, because like all root veg they hate being transplanted. But this year, I decided to defy convention and started them off in modules.
The results have been incredible: last week I dug up my first crop of 10 beetroot and they were a really good size. And there are still plenty in the ground, fattening up. Sowing in modules meant germination could be closely controlled – undercover in the greenhouse, so it was definitely warm enough, and away from slugs and birds. I waited until each seedling had healthy leaves about two inches high, meaning they would be more likely to resist (although not entirely immune from) a passing slug, and I could see the roots poking out of the bottom of the module tray. I transplanted them in early April, when the soil was consistently above 8C.
I was very careful during transplanting – lifting as much of the compost with the seedling as I could, so the disturbance was minimal. Their new bed was stone- and weed-free, with rotted manure dug in, the soil raked until it was fine and crumbly, and refreshed with water before planting. I planted each seedling four inches apart in rows six inches apart – a little bit closer than is recommended, but this hasn’t affected their size. We have foxes on our site, who love to dig up beds that look freshly raked, so I always net young seedlings to put them off. This also stops birds like pigeons carrying out raids, although it is brassicas they really love to shred to pieces.
Succession sowing is a good idea if you want to keep your crop going into autumn – if you have the space, you could sow two rows every month. It’s not too late to get some seeds in now, for harvesting in October, although by now I would sow directly into the soil so there is no delay to their growth.
I grew five varieties: ‘Boltardy’, a traditional purple coloured globe variety which is bolt-resistant, ‘Crimson King’, another globe beetroot, which comes from King’s Seeds in Essex and stores well, Rainbow Beet, which is a mixture of different colours from Thompson and Morgan, ‘Burpee’s Golden’, a deep yellow variety which looks sensational in roasts and salads, and the very popular candy-striped variety ‘Chioggia’.
They took exactly three months to grow to a decent size – halfway between a golf ball and a tennis ball, and not larger because they can start to get woody. Gluts of beetroot are easy to deal with because you can go on a major pickling expedition, or roast then freeze for later use.