The history of the beetroot

How to grow beetroot | House & Garden

Andrew Montgomery

Almost impossibly rich in colour, the classic red beetroot is one of the most attractive crops in the vegetable garden - both on the plate and in the ground, as the leaves, too, can be highly decorative as they grow. Orange, yellow and white varieties are also available and can be interesting to grow, although the taste differs little between them all. Unfortunately, childhood memories of pickled beetroot have scarred many, so it isn't perhaps as widely grown as it should be. If this is the case, try it roasted in olive oil and you'll instantly revise your opinion; sweet, almost nutty in flavour, it is gentle on the tongue and melts in the mouth. Its taste is often described as 'earthy', a term that is more correct than many people realise due to the presence of geosmin in the beetroot's flesh, an organic compound produced by microbes in the soil, which has a distinct earthy taste and smell – think of the smell of wet earth after summer rain.

The ancestor of the beetroot we grow today is wild sea beet, Beta vulgaris maritima, which grows along coastlines from Britain to India. Sea beet was first cultivated in the Mediterranean around 4,000 years ago, although at this time it was the leaves that were eaten and not the root. The Greeks grew it mainly for medicinal use, as described widely in the literature of the day, to treat a variety of ailments, from constipation to weeping wounds. The Romans began to realise the potential of the root as well as the leaves, resulting in new cultivated forms with larger roots. But even then, the root was long and thin, like a carrot, and it wasn't until the sixteenth century - when the popularity of beetroot, as a vegetable rather than a curative, spread throughout Europe – that the rounded, bulbous roots that we know today were developed from what was then known as the Roman beet. This first reached Britain in the late sixteenth century, when it was described by John Gerard as a 'red and beautiful root ... preferred before the leaves, as well as beautie as in goodness'.

In Europe, especially in Germany and Eastern Europe, beetroot had been a staple since the Middle Ages, used to make the soup we know today as borscht. In Britain, only two varieties of beetroot were known before about 1800 – 'Red Roman' and 'Long Red - and it was used more as a novelty sweetmeat than a savoury vegetable. Eventually, the Victorians developed a taste for itin salads, and soon new varieties were being imported from Italy, France and North America, some of which still survive today. Of these, 'Bull's Blood' is well known, with decorative dark purple leaves and deep red roots that are sweet and tender when eaten young-though, like many, they can get tough and fibrous if left to grow too big. 'Chioggia', which originated in Venetian market gardens around 1840, is a beautiful, pink globe variety which, when cut, shows candy-striped concentric rings. Annoyingly, these fade and merge to a less attractive colour during cooking, but the taste is good. ‘Burpee's Golden', one of my favourites, was developed in North America around the beginning of the nineteenth century, and is very sweet in flavour, with golden-orange flesh. “Cylindra’ is an old Danish variety with cylindrical red roots, ideal for slicing.

Cultivation

How to grow beetroot | House & Garden

Andrew Montgomery

There are early, maincrop and late varieties of beetroot, so you can have a succession of crops through the summer and into autumn. For early sowings, it's best to plant modern bolt-resistant cultivars such as the reliable ‘Boltardy' or 'Detroit 6 Rubidus”, which are less likely to run to seed if there's a dip in temperature and can be planted in March, as soon as the soil becomes workable. Further successional sowings can be made over the course of spring, with the final sowings made in early to mid summer for maincrop varieties such as 'Bolivar, which can be stored over winter. As well as direct sowings, seeds can also be started off in modules in February, so that plug plants can be put straight into the soil in March.

The key with soil preparation is not to pile in lots of manure just before planting, which may produce forked or misshapen roots, but to prepare the soil well in advance, preferably digging in plenty of organic matter in the autumn, allowing it to break down thor oughly by the time it comes to making the first sowing. An ideal soil for beetroots is light, fertile and free-draining. Sowing the seeds is less fiddly than with other vege tables as they are large and easy to handle. Looking like a little piece of cork, each 'seed' is actually several seeds clustered together, so one of these will produce several seedlings that will later have to be thinned. Exceptions to the rule are the new monogerm cultivars such as ‘Monogram' and 'Moneta' that have been bred to produce a single seed rather than a cluster, which reduces the need for thinning.

Before planting, soak the dry seeds for an hour to encourage germination. The seed clusters should be sown about 5cm apart in drills 1.5cm deep, and in rows 30cm apart. Ideally they should be thinned twice – first to thin out the clusters, then later to give a final spacing of about 15cm between each strong plant. As it develops, the crop won't need a huge amount of attention, apart from weeding and watering; but water only if the weather is excessively dry, as over watering may result in the growth of too much foliage at the expense of the root. With luck, the first tasty baby beets can be harvested about eight weeks after the seedlings have appeared, with others left in the ground to mature to a greater size as the season goes on.

A good selection of beetroot seed is available from www.thompson-morgan.com. West Dean Kitchen Garden (www.westdean.org.uk), near Chichester, is open daily.