Swiss Chards, Beetroot, Spinach Beet, Sugar Beet, Mangelworzals, Good King Henry and Orach. These vegetables are grouped together in the same botanical family, although different parts of each type are used. They are all nutritious, some or all being rich in protein, iron, calcium, phosphorous and containing vitamins A, B1, B2 and B3. UK soils and climate are generally quite suitable for the production of good crops of this family provided some basic rules are observed.
Beetroot Globe and Cyclinder and Tankard Types
A Summer and Winter vegetable, is in great demand for salads and delicious when served hot, but do not use them whilst they are young or not bigger than 50mm in diameter.
Soil Preparation and Conditions for Growth
On the whole Beetroot prefers a “medium” to “light” open soil and if grown on heavy stiff ground are apt to become coarse skinned or tough. They can be grown on any soil that does not dry out quickly and which has not been manured during the previous 12 months; any good garden soil, left rough for the Winter should need no further treatment except perhaps a light dusting of fish manure raked in before sowing.
The main consideration is that your land should be moisture retentive, well nourished and NOT acid, therefore test your soil and if found to be below neutral, bring it to a slightly alkaline condition by liming it in the spring. Try to employ on open area which enjoys full sunshine as this crop does not care for a shaded situation.
Seed Sowing and cultivation
Beetroot is a half hardy biennial (treated as an annual), the seed itself is reminiscent of small crumbs of cork or popcorn, each containing at least 2 seeds, therefore they will need thinning to one seedling later. There are now varieties available which contain only one seed per case (mono seed) – one such being Monogem. If the new germinated seed is subjected to a cold spell or your soil is inhospitably hard you can expect the plant to “bolt” and produce a marble sized root and a tall flowering stem.
Hence the sowing date must coincide with the advent of warmer weather which means no earlier than mid-May for us; although you can continue to sow for the next two months. Remove all weeds and their roots in the sowing area, fork over to a depth of 15cm, raking out stones and debris, don’t forget the rule of using boards to walk on. Make drills 25mm deep and gently dribble water down them if the soil is dry, leave for a few hours. As an insurance against non-germination you can soak the seeds overnight in plain aired water. Sow 2 seeds at 10cm intervals for economy, the alternate thinnings at golf ball size will leave your main crop at 20cm apart, each row being 30cm from the next; it will be wise to stretch several strands of black cotton 15cm above the soil across the rows against damage by birds when the seedlings are in leaf.
Germination is within 14 days and this crop needs a flying start and grown as quickly as possible for best results. At 3rd leaf stage thin (if necessary) to 10cm apart; if the seedlings are very tiny and the soil is well soaked, they may transplant, but don’t count on it. There is little more to do after this that will improve things except to weed, hoe and keep the soil from caking or drying out. Use the roots as young or old as you require, but before the onset of Winter weather – October at the latest – unless the roots have attained full size earlier they should be lifted and stored. Not to do so will result in the roots being destroyed by the frost. You should lift the roots when the soil is dry, carefully, with a garden fork, gently easing the root from the soil to avoid damage, twist off the tops 50mm from the top, without delay, store them in boxes or old plastic buckets or drums etc. Pack them round with sand so that non of the root is exposed and put them in a cool weatherproof place, they will keep for 6 months.
The ordinary red globe beets can be grown successfully in large pots, tubs or other containers, you might get 6 roots in a 25cm pot, they will need a sunny situation and frequent watering. Good varieties of globe beet for general use include “Pablo” and “Boltardy”, both early sorts (the latter is supposed not to run to seed as easily as most) “Detroit”, “Rubidus” and “Solo” for later use. The intermediate or “tankard” varieties of half long types differ only in shape from the Globe sorts and are every bit as good for taste although they have a tendency to push themselves out of the ground; a variety worth trying is “Cylindra”. Long Beet is best avoided for general use; it requires a deep soil and goes woody somewhat quickly, it is awkward to prepare for culinary use, nevertheless, if you refuse to be put off with that try a variety called “Cheltenham Green Top”.
When cooling it, have your water ready boiling and drop the pies of root into it instantly it is sliced, to minimise loosing its colour. The Golden Globe variety is well worth trying although the taste is very much the same as red, it will not discolour any other vegetables it comes into contact with and is an attractive colour. White Globe Beet is, if anything, sweeter than the others but it may have a pink tinge or have streaks of red in it; it is more of a Sugar Beet or heart shape. Nevertheless it makes a pleasant change and the best variety is probably “Albina Vereduna”.
Pests and Diseases of Beetroot
Not a great deal of troubles, over liming and hungry soils may encourage scabbing of the roots, the remedy is not to lime as regularly. Aphids may sometimes be troublesome in dry seasons.
Swiss Chards (Seakable Beet)
Grown for its large foliage and ribs, this vegetable is rarely grown commercially despite the fact that it is an easy crop to raise and has all the properties of spinach and cabbage without the stronger taste of the former, being closely related to beetroot and Sugar Beet, yet is not ready to “bolt”; it does not boil down as Spinach does and has a flavour somewhere between that and cabbage.
Conditions for Growth
Chards are very tolerant of soil conditions and situation; they will succeed in shaded areas (which can’t be said of many other crops). Any good soil will produce reasonable specimens, but of course the better prepared the better results, and is in the case of Beetroot, not acid but neutral pH, in any case, rake in a light dressing of fish manure two weeks before sowing. First sowings are made at the beginning of April and again in July for a succession of pickings from Autumn to Spring.
Although reasonably hardy, they will need straw or bracken or glass protection before the onset of hard frost which they will resist for a short time. Drills 25mm deep and 45cm apart; seed to be sown into a moist soil, putting 2 seeds at 30cm stations, afterwards thinning to the strongest seedling. Seedlings appear within 21 days and they will need protection from feathered vandals. Your first useable leaves will be ready in the late Summer and you should break off the outer leaves as required close to the stem base. Ruby Chard differs very little from the silver variety, perhaps a slight difference in flavour but mainly in the bright red stems which from a distance might be mistaken for rhubarb.
Pests and Diseases
Blackfly may decide to spend their summer holidays on your plants and if they are really determined about it you will have to work hard to shift them (as you sometimes have to do on broad beans). Slugs will be in evidence usually at the seedlings stage, but apart from these two there is not likely to be any other pests once the plants are growing well.
A perennial leaf beet sometimes called “perpetual” spinach, spinach beet is simply a variety of beet used for its larger leaves rather than its root. It is very much hardier and less temperamental than spinach, is much easier to grow and can provide a constant source of valuable greens over Winter months which is its real purpose. It is another leaf crop which does not shrink on cooking as true spinach does.
Conditions for Growth Soil
A rich soil is not necessary with this crop for it will produce good results on reasonably fertile land, but obviously a well nourished soil is preferred – as with all vegetables, a dressing of Growmore on the row a week or so before sowing should ensure a good start.
Sowing: The most important sowing is the March/April one and needs carrying out in the same style as the chards, the distance between seeds should be 25/30cm, sow 2 or 3 seeds at each station as germination can be somewhat poor at times; thin to the strongest seedling. The seedlings will not transplant readily unless very young.
Spinach Beet can develop under ideal conditions into a robust leafy plant (as can chard), and may develop an equally robust root system. Keep the soil moist and weed free as the plant progress and when they are about 3 months old the largest leaves will be ready for picking. There are few if any varieties of Spinach Beet, but obtain the seeds from a firm whose strains of other types of seed is well established.