IF YOU are suffering from the January blues, don’t expect any sympathy from me. I am currently sitting in a tawdry damp internet café in East London, desperately trying to be upbeat while writing about vegetable growing I have no hope of being involved in. For the next couple of months, my own vegetable garden in the Algarve will be tended by my partner, who is meticulously following my e-mail and text message instructions. Here, in the frozen UK, no one can consider sowing anything for a couple of months, whereas in the land of eternal sunshine, you will undoubtedly be itching to get started.
Vegetable of the month – beetroot
For a number of years, I had nothing but problems growing beetroot. They got swamped by weeds, developed woody, inedible roots, or simply dried to a frizzle. My neighbours didn’t grow them and seemed puzzled that I wanted to. I was about to give up all hope when I finally achieved a successful crop. The key to successful beetroots is a combination of good timing, good fertile soil and never letting them dry out, along with the all essential good luck.
The soil needs to be well fertilised and well mucked. Well-rotted manure helps the soil to retain moisture, keeping the thirsty roots moist during warm weather. Beetroot takes about three months to reach maturity, so a sowing in February and again in March should result in good size roots ready to pull before the really hot weather sets in. The advice is to sow them where you want them to grow, but I have had no problems transplanting them and would recommend this, as it avoids the weed problem when the plants are young.
How to grow them
• Start them off in a seed tray or small pots until the plants grow their first true leaves.
• Transplant carefully into well-manured soil, on a cool day, leaving about 15cm between plants. The soil should be moist.
• Give them a light spraying everyday or so for the first week after transplanting, ensuring the soil remains moist.
• Once they are established, keep them well watered and weed-free. I found they benefit hugely from being planted under tela, the plastic membrane that suppresses weeds but allows water through. This membrane keeps the soil warm and reduces evaporation, a perfect environment for beetroot.
• If you are growing a lot of beets, you can harvest a couple of leaves from each plant to eat like cabbage – the young tender leaves are very tasty.
• After 10 weeks or so, feel around under the soil. When the roots are tennis ball size (smaller if you wish), they are ready for pulling.
Beetroot can be boiled in a saucepan for about an hour or in a pressure cooker for about 10 to 15 minutes. Gently clean the root, taking care not to damage the skin and leave about an inch (3cm) of the leaf stalks attached. This will keep the root encased and prevent it bleeding.
In the UK, beetroots are usually eaten cold as part of a salad, but they make an ideal hot vegetable, served with black pepper. They can be added to casseroles or stews to give a very distinctive flavour, or used to make hot or cold soups. The humble beetroot is much more versatile than we tend to imagine.
Beets will store in a cool room (if you can find one) for two or three months. Alternatively, they can be pickled and last for a year or more.
• If anyone can help with more information on organic supplies, please send me details. If you have any gardening nightmares or successes to share, email me at [email protected]. Write Virtual Vegetables in the subject column, so that the message isn’t mistaken for spam and binned