You can’t beat beets! If you can stop your beetroot from bolting you’ll have a delicious crop to enjoy hot or cold, says Monty Don
The paths are slimy and wet when I wander up to the vegetable plot at the top of the garden. The ground is sodden and the leaves of the leeks, chard and beetroot are bedraggled by days of rain.
But ease a few beetroots out with a fork and the beets themselves appear, their tops wizened with exposure to light and air but, once rinsed under a tap, their subterranean sections are as shiny and sleek as burgundy satin.
I have three kinds of beetroot growing this year. There is Bulls Blood, an old favourite that, as the name suggests, has a rich red colour and dark leaves that are very good eaten raw in a salad.
Chioggia has white flesh with concentric pink rings. It’s very sweet, with an earthy flavour, and is named after the port at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. I always associate the Veneto – the area around Venice – with its red vegetables such as beetroot and various kinds of chicory.
UK-based gardening expert Monty Don, says beetroot is easy to grow, liking rich, well-drained soil and best in full sun. Pictured: Monty with some of his beetroot
Finally, there is a golden-coloured variety called, appropriately, Golden. It is almost apricot in colour and has a pink tinge that’s very handsome.
I was brought up regarding beetroot as something that was only ever eaten cold, having been boiled, cooled, and served (doused in vinegar) with a salad (which invariably included lettuce and hard-boiled egg and was served with mayonnaise rather than what was then called French dressing).
Q I had a raised bed for the first time last year but some small, very pale slugs destroyed everything I grew in it. To prevent a recurrence, I’m thinking of using a pesticide. Which one would do least harm to the environment?
Joan Brook, Bucks
A The offenders sound like grey field slugs. The eggs were probably in the soil used to fill the bed. But pesticides do more harm than good. Instead, encourage predators such as thrushes, hedgehogs, beetles and toads to visit your garden. Also, slugs love young seedlings so raise them under cover before planting out.
Q My 30-year-old camellia flowers well but it has developed yellow leaves. How can I stop this?
Tom Munt, Berks
A It sounds like your soil may be too alkaline for camellias, which thrive in acidic soil. Using a mulch of composted bracken or pine needles will help, along with a weekly feed of organic iron fertiliser between March and October.
Q I plant winter aconites among my snowdrops to add some yellow to the mix but something keeps eating the petals. Do you have any idea what this might be?
D Cockburn, Herts
A I suspect birds are the culprits. They certainly eat – or at least vandalise – crocus petals, thinking they’re something juicy.
Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally.
This is perfectly pleasant and all – but there are so many other ways to cook and enjoy beetroot! I love it roasted with generous sprigs of thyme and served with roast meat or a hot cream sauce. Beetroot soup is delicious no matter which way you make it, whether that be a proper borscht or a much simpler kitchen soup.
Of course, it’s now trendy to have beetroot juices (how my parents and their generation would have been bemused by this!). But, on top of their deliciousness, beetroots are incredibly good for you, improving blood pressure, digestion and inflammation.
And beetroot is so easy to grow. It is part of the same family as sugar beet, spinach, chard and, more surprisingly, quinoa. All like rich, well-drained soil and are very hardy but, like most vegetables, do best in full sun.
The seeds are in little nuggety clusters so each seed may produce a number of seedlings. I usually sow into module trays, not worrying if a few seeds go in each module.
These will grow as a little cluster of beets and stop any getting too big while pushing each other apart to allow room for them to grow to a convenient size (somewhere between a golf and a cricket ball).
The advantage of raising them under cover is that you can make a sowing as early as February so they are ready to plant as soon as the soil warms up in spring.
The seedlings grow slowly but should have harvestable roots by mid-summer. These will happily sit in the ground all winter although, as they age, they become woody.
But, these woody, over-large beets will sprout delicious new leaves in early spring that are ideal for salads.
The main thing to watch for is the plants running to seed or bolting – growing flowers – which will prevent the roots from growing. This is a response to being too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry.
The answer is to try to ensure a steady and consistent supply of nutrients and hope the weather is not too erratic.
MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: CYCLAMEN COUM
Monty said cyclamen coum (pictured) is hardy and do well in dry shade, the soil should be enriched and an annual mulch of leaf mould is ideal
The cyclamen – cyclamen coum not cyclamen hederifolium – are flowering in my garden. They’re hardy and do well in dry shade, the soil should be enriched and an annual mulch of leaf mould is ideal.
Plant in late summer, keeping the corms shallow with the tops just under the surface. Squirrels can be a problem so cover newly planted corms with a layer of chicken wire with a couple of inches of soil over that to deter them.
Never mix cyclamen coum with cyclamen hederifolium as the latter will always crowd out the former.
THIS WEEK’S JOB: PRUNING APPLE AND PEAR TREES
Pruning now, when the tree is dormant, stimulates vigorous regrowth, and allows light in and air to circulate. Always cut back to something, be it a bud, another branch or the trunk. Remove any misshapen, weak, crossing or crowded growth.