Call it an easy vegetable. Beetroot suits most climates and can be grown at most times of the year, so it's always ready to fill a void in your veggie patch and will do so with little fuss. It can be harvested for its leaves as it grows (young tender ones are lovely in a salad or braised), and later the dense, colourful beets are the true glory of the harvest. But beetroot is even more versatile than that - it's great as a hangover cure, it reduces garlic breath, and it's even been said to reduce blood pressure and improve libido.
Like any root vegetable, beetroot depends on good soil preparation for its success. If you're planting it in pots, choose a good potting mix and add a little blood and bone before sowing your seeds. If you're planting it in the garden, it's best positioned where you've just grown leafy greens - lettuce, silverbeet, kale or spinach - because they use a lot of nitrogen, whereas beetroot needs relatively little (too much nitrogen will lead to excessive foliage at the expense of root development). If your soil is compacted, loosen it lightly with a pitchfork to allow the roots to develop freely.
Beetroot seeds are quite hard, with a tough exterior coating, so soak them in a glass of water the night before planting; this softens the seed and improves germination. Keep the soil moist, not wet, until the seeds have germinated, then water every couple of days for the first month.
At this point the seedlings will need thinning to reduce competition for nutrition and allow space to develop. Gently pluck out some of the seedlings until the ones that remain are roughly five to 10 centimetres apart. You can re-plant the ones you lift elsewhere or give them away as gifts.
When grown in the cool season, beetroot can look after themselves. They can get by on rainfall and well-prepared soil, and enjoy the cool soil temperatures that help them develop firm, dense roots. As long as you've given the soil a boost with blood and bone before planting, they should have enough phosphorous for healthy root growth. In the absence of rain, water them once or twice a week.
After two to three months, check on your beets by scratching around the soil. Root vegetables are predominantly anchored at the base, so they don't mind a bit of handling. Pull away some mulch and soil to look at what's growing beneath the surface. Plenty of foliage but little root development means there may be a shortage of phosphorous, in which case add more blood and bone to the soil.
The foliage can be picked throughout the life of the beetroot for salad greens. Try to pick evenly and in moderation over all your plants. Don't jeopardise the real prize - the root - by overpicking.
Once the root has fully formed, there's a trick to knowing when to pick it. This brings us to the "Goldilocks principle": beetroot are just right when they're somewhere between too big and too small - just like a bowl of porridge. Aim for something between a golf ball and a tennis ball. Anything bigger will start to taste like wood.
To harvest, loosen the soil around the beetroot and gently pull on the foliage. Exert the same amount of force you'd use on your little sister's hair. If it resists, pull harder until it dislodges, and don't forget to pull up the foliage to use as greens.
Beetroot - all roots for that matter - store well in the ground when conditions are cool and dry.
If your beetroot is ready, but you're not, resist harvesting- they'll quickly turn spongy, so leave them in the ground until you need them.
One-minute skills: how to sow seedlings
Propagating from seed is no doubt the most cost-effective way to grow your food, but when you enter the season late or don't have the time to invest, you can fall back on seedlings.
Planting seedlings looks easy, but it presents traps for any level of gardener. A common pitfall is planting the whole punnet of seedlings together, just as they were in the container. A month or so later, most of them will be stunted and struggling to grow. There's too much competition for space and they've crowded each other out.
It's important to separate each seedling and transplant it at the recommended spacing to let each individual realise its potential.
Simple rules for seedling success
• Choose an appropriate planting day, avoiding frosts and heatwaves.
• Hydrate the seedlings before planting them out. Water them 15 minutes before transplanting to prepare them for being moved.
• Water them well and keep an eye on them as they settle in.
Mat Pember is co-founder of The Little Veggie Patch Co.