Beetroot - Beta vulgaris, used as a medicine and aphrodisiac by the Romans, is making a comeback. Recent research has shown that regular consumption of beetroot juice reduces blood pressure by increasing levels of nitrite in the blood.
Beetroot is also a great source of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins and because the carbs are digested slowly it is a low GL (Glycaemic loading) food which helps to stabilise blood sugars. There's much more information like this on the brilliant UK Love Beetroot website, so when you have read this take a look.
Of course, however good beetroot may be for you, it is better still if you grow your own. Gardening provides exercise, and soothes away the stresses of the day, though perhaps introducing one or two new ones. Home grown beetroot is fresh and fresh means chock full of all the goodness nature has created. Beetroot from your garden or allotment should have a small carbon footprint too - it's local and you haven't used tons of artificial fertiliser or pesticides to grow it - have you?
The nitty gritty
As any reputable gardener will tell you, beetroot likes to grow on well prepared, well manured soil.
Here is what you need to do to get earlier beetroots and bigger yields.
Wait until the soil warms up (9c minimum and about 2 weeks earlier if you use a plastic or fleece mulch) and frosts are past before you sow your seeds. For baby beetroots a succession of sowings will be needed. One big early sowing is fine if you don't mind large beetroots.
If you are much troubled by slugs or snails take appropriate action before you sow - it is easier to catch them when the soil is bare.
After you have prepared your soil, set out a garden irrigation system with lines set 30cm (12") apart, each line having drippers also set 30cm (12") apart. The drippers should irrigate small spots of soil on a 30cm grid pattern.
Turn the irrigation on so that the bed is marked by a small wet spot under each dripper. Using the end of a broomstick make a 2cm (3/4") deep depression in each wet spot. Sow 4 or 5 beetroot seeds in each depression, then cover over with fine soil.
Irrigate regularly. Using an automatic solar pump to irrigate using rainwater from a water barrel is ideal, as it can be used anywhere. On heavy soil irrigating about every 5 days is good On well drained soil more frequent watering is better. Keep irrigating throughout the crop unless it is wet anyway.
With your plants growing in groups on a grid pattern, hoeing out weeds is easy. You can hoe in two directions. Just be careful not to hoe the irrigation line. Any weeds growing within the beetroot groups just pull by hand - they will come out easily as the soil will be damp.
As your plants grow, pull the biggest root from each group for eating, leaving the smaller ones to grow on. Don't pull all the beet from any one group until all the other groups are thinned.
What can you expect?
I have conducted trials in my own garden in 2010, comparing rows of watered beet with control rows left unwatered. In all other respects the rows were treated the same. The seeds were sown on April 9th under fleece. At the first harvest on July 1st, 1 metre of control row produced 110g of beetroot which were really too small to eat. The watered row produced 405g of good "baby beetroot" sized roots. The irrigation had effectively made production start between 2 and 3 weeks earlier.
At the second harvest on August 3rd both rows were producing edible sized roots. The control and watered rows produced 1225g and 1800g respectively. That's an increase of 47% from irrigating.
A later sowing, grown in groups as described above, but without an unwatered control looked even better. In the warm dry conditions germination was quick and even and the young plants quickly produce baby beets. They have gone on to produce good quality larger beets too. For beets at least, it does look as though group sowing with garden irrigation is a great way to go:
Low, efficient water use.
Delicious, nutritious home grown food.
First time growers
Beetroots are an ideal subject for children and first time growers. Beetroot are easier to grow and more trouble free than most crops. They also grow to a size which can be harvested quickly. These benefits are further enhanced by irrigation. Early success in growing is a great motivator whatever your age. If you want to get into grow your own, or encourage your children to, this is a great place to start.