Growing beetroot

Beetroot should be thinned to one seedling every 10cm once they reach 3cm high. Photograph: Alamy

Did you know that the Victorians dyed their hair with beetroot? That some cultures believe a man and woman who share a beetroot will fall in love? That the world’s heaviest beetroot weighed over 23kg? And that Elizabethan cooks prepared their beetroot by – yum! – wiping them with dung?

No? Then you need to visit, “a whole website dedicated to this unique and quintessentially British vegetable”. Its “fun facts” page also reveals that “if you boil beetroot in water and then massage the water into your scalp each night, it works ais an effective cure for dandruff”.

How was that discovery made? More to the point, how does one grow this wonder vegetable? From seed, unsurprisingly, sown between mid-spring and midsummer into well-drained soil from which the big stones have been removed. If you’re the organised sort, you’ll have enriched this beforehand with well-rotted manure, compost and/or general-purpose fertiliser. Soak the seeds overnight to help germination, sow them sparingly in rows 30cm apart, then thin to one seedling every 10cm once they reach 3cm high.

You can start harvesting beets about six weeks later, once they reach the size of golfballs; pull up alternate plants to space out those that remain, and aim to harvest the last few by the time they’re as big as tennis balls. The leaves can be used in salads when young, or cooked in the same way as Swiss chard. Twist them off rather than cutting them; this will stop the roots “bleeding” and increase their shelf-life.

What could be easier than that? Not much, to be honest, apart from growing radishes, a plant that is a gift not just to impatient gardeners, but to anyone with a gap to fill in their veg patch. Radishes can sprout and swell in just three weeks, which means you can sow them among lazier plants and harvest them before the two start to compete. Sow the seeds 5-10cm apart, and thin the seedlings if you encounter odd spots of overcrowding. Don’t let the roots grow too big, or they’ll become woody and over-hot.

Phil Daoust is a food writer based in England and France. Twitter: @philxdaoust