Beetroot is the envy of other crops, while silver beet edges out spinach as the hero of the autumn garden.
Words Rachel Vogan
April can be a time of abundance in the garden. Bees are still buzzing around pollinating crops and, hopefully, the autumn rains have arrived to recharge the ground after it has basked in the warm heat of summer. While root crops quietly go about doing their thing, it’s time to start eyeing up some leafy crops to plant, all in aid of bulking up your hearty soups and stir-fries come the cooler climes ahead.
With a list of attributes other crops envy, it takes a bit to beat this root crop. It is hardy and easy to grow, making it ideal for novice gardeners. Both the roots and shoots (leaves) are edible, making it a superfood packed with antioxidants, nutrients and fibre. You can enjoy your beetroot raw, cooked, marinated and juiced – so hats off to this versatile and nutritious crop. This is why beetroot is on my menu all year round. I use it grated or thinly sliced fresh in slaws and salads (adding it just prior to serving as the juice does run). Each season I bottle some – and this year I added a few cloves to the brine, which made a wonderful difference. In winter, I roast baby beets regularly – they take a similar amount of time to cook as a potato of a similar size. I am not into smoothies or blended vegetable drinks, but I do love microgreens – and beetroot micros are lovely and so fast to germinate on the bench.
In the garden, I prefer to plant seedlings, mainly because they are a month or two ahead of seed. In areas where the soil has cooled right off now, seedlings are the better option. Prepare the soil as you would for carrots or parsnip – dig over the ground so it is loose and easy to work. Sow seeds (if you can) a couple of centimetres apart, but don’t panic if a few extras go in more closely as you can weed them out later.
Cylindrical or globe?
Cylindrical-shaped beetroot grow like carrots below the ground, while globe-shaped ones are tennis-ball size or bigger and fatten up just above the soil line.
In terms of taste, I cannot separate the two. I tend to plant the globe varieties as I like seeing how fat the crop is as it’s maturing. In saying that, the deep-rooted cylindrical ones can form much larger roots – so you decide!
For the windowsill, I tend to go for the cylindrical ones, but I do not think it matters too much as microgreens only grow to 5–10cm. Sow whatever seed you have.
When to pick, pull & pluck
This is the tricky bit, as all parts of the plant can be eaten at any time once the seed has germinated. However, the guide is to harvest the crop when it gets to the size at which you like to use it. If you are planting for roasting, for example, allow the roots to form a decent fist or tennis-ball size. But if you like them smaller, like baby beets, harvest them at golf-ball size. As the root develops and gets bigger, the taste does not vary a lot; however, the texture changes. The older the roots get, the woodier they become, so try not to leave them in the ground for too long.
How is your silver beet looking? As I write, I am looking out over knee-high colourful stems of ‘Rainbow Beet’ – such a pretty crop that provides so much colour and an abundance of edible nutrition all year round.
Silver beet is a no-fuss crop that thrives on the smell of an oily rag and pumps out the produce. This makes it a hero crop, yet, for some, it is overlooked for spinach, which actually requires a lot more TLC to get it to do its thing.
If the ground is still warm, sow seeds now or else plant out seedlings. If space allows, plant seedlings 30–40cm apart or the length of a trowel. You can cram more into a smaller space – they will happily grow – but the more room you have between plants, the better the air movement they’ll have, which helps maintain a healthy crop.
These grunty beans thrive in the coldest months of the year. Get seeds or young plants into the ground in April or May. (Traditionally, Anzac Day was the day to aim for when planting broad beans.)
Seed germinates easily, making this an easy crop to grow from seed. The seeds are fat and easy to handle, so you can poke them into the ground with your finger to a depth of about 4cm. Choose a spot in full sun and away from wind, and allow 15cm between plants. Crops take around six months to mature. As they are tall-growing plants, broad beans will need support to stop them falling over. Avoid planting anything too close to them as they will throw a lot of shade due to their height.
It is a good crop for large pots and buckets – a 40-litre bucket is big enough for a handful of plants. They are heavy-croppers, so a punnet or two will easily feed a family of four for a few meals a week.
MIZUNA & MIBUNA
Over the next few months, get into the habit of sowing a row of these two speedy greens every four to six weeks. Seeds of these quick-growing salad and stir-fry stalwarts germinate within a week. Sow in situ, in rows. Thin out plants to allow a couple of hand-spaces between each plant.
Mizuna is a wonderful cut-and-come-again crop, but keep the water up to it as it will readily bolt and go to seed once it gets dry. With mibuna, though, you can pick it leaf by leaf for a number of weeks. Both are ideal for tubs and window planters.
Red and green varieties of mizuna are available in seed packets, along with mibuna, which is a rich, dark green in colour.
Tangy and rewarding, this vibrant herb comes into its own in the autumn. All parts of the plant can be eaten, from the roots to the shoots and then the seeds.
Coriander does not like hot, dry weather. When it is exposed to long, dry periods it will bolt and go to seed. Autumn, winter and spring are the best months to grow and enjoy coriander. There are varieties praised for being slow to bolt, including New Zealand-grown ‘Picante’.A short-lived herb, the trick is to get into the habit of planting it regularly. It is hardy overall, but it will not thrive indoors for long periods of time.
Coriander will grow in pots and containers; however, it needs plenty of root room, so choose bigger planters and use a good-quality vegetable planting mix.