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How to grow beetroot – An introduction

beetroot commercial farming africa how to small scale tips

Beetroot is not grown by many farmers. Mainly because the demand is not that great and commercial companies have the market share. A large portion of the beetroot sold is processed and bottled. A small portion is sold as fresh. This does not mean there are not opportunities. The advantage of growing beetroot is that it can be grown throughout the year. So climate is not a major limiting factor.

Growing beetroot and making a living from it can be difficult for the small scale farmers. Beetroot are grown by large experienced growers and are sold on the larger fresh produce markets or canning companies. Growing on such a large scale is often not out of choice, but more convenience and agronomic necessity. These large growers need crop rotation systems with either carrots, onions, potatoes, sunflowers etc.  So they are already set with a certain type of bullk growing method.

Small scale farmers should not be intimidated. There are opportunities producing beetroot to local markets. With fuel prices climbing rapidly, transporting food from the large popular fresh produce markets is becoming very expensive. Local production is ideally suited and small scale growers should take advantage of the situation.

Climate requirements for growing beetroot

Beetroot is a cool weather crop, but can be grown throughout the year in most areas. Expect a reduction in quality during hot summer months. For instance, in summer beetroot are lighter red and the inner rings can clearly be seen. Experiment with different varieties to find the most suitable for your climate conditions.

Beetroot is frost tolerant. But expect them to grow much slower during winter compared to spring and summer. If cold weather stop beetroot seedlings to grow, a thick taproot will develop with fine horizontal growing side roots. These beets are not marketable. Be careful of leaving beetroot in the field too long in winter, especially when the weather warms up. They tend to go over to seed production making the beets unmarketable. Always check which variety is best suited in the different times of year.

As a general rule a grower should harvest within 90 days at the latest after planting.

beetroot beta vulgaris
Healthy beetroot plant.

Beetroot soil requirements

As with all crops, the best results are obtained with sandy loam soils. Any crop needs good aeration, water percolation with good water retention. So if you have a water logged soil expect reduced quality and yields. Beetroot does not grow well in acid soils so make sure the pH is between 6 and 8.

One of the advantages of beetroot is that it is brack tolerant. Although the colour of the beets are affected, the taste stays the same. Soils with too high organic content will cause an increase in side root formation which reduces the quality of the beet.

Fertilizer requirements of beetroot

Never apply fertilizer without a proper fertilizer recommendation based on a soil analysis. True, not everyone has access to a laboratory that does soil analysis. In that case fertilizers should be applied sparingly rather than aggressive as it can do more harm over the long term (I am also implying harm to your bank account).

The first thing to determine is the pH of your soil. If you have no idea and have limited resources just ignore it. When you harvest your first crop evaluate the characteristics of the beets very carefully. If the colour is light and rings are visible you might have an acid soil, in that case add lime. Recommendations should be obtained from the company supplying the lime as they might have experience in your area.

The first nutrient that you will add to the soil is nitrogen. Depending on the soil pH you will use either limestone ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulphate. You will need 2-3 dressings during the growth season. The first application is about 2 weeks before planting, the second about 3 weeks after emergence a and 2-3 weeks after that.

Phosphate and potassium are applied according to soil analysis or if you don’t have that according to the plant yields. Phosphate is always added before planting as it does not move that much in the soil. Potassium is highly mobile and is applied with nitrogen but only 2 applications are necessary as beetroot does not make any flowers like tomatoes and peppers. Flowering plants require more accurate potassium applications.

If you know that your soil has low sodium (Na) concentrations, you can add some sodium to improve yields and quality. It is strange but true, beetroot reacts very well to sodium fertilization only if there is a deficiency in the soil.

Trace elements are important. They are applied through foliar feed but some fertilizers already have trace elements such as Zinc (Zn). Be mindful that beetroot is sensitive to Boron (B) deficiency. Boron deficiency can quickly be identified by black stains and cracks on the sides  and black blotches in the flesh of the beet. Commercial Borax powder at a rate of 5-10 kg/ha must be applied. Start with the lower rate first and slowly add more. An easy way to apply the powder is to mix it with sand and add it to the rows after the seed has emerged.

Basic soil preparation

Seed is sown directly into the soil so you need to prepare the land very well. A level soil with as little clods as possible will produce better seedlings and higher yields. The soil must be free from rotting material and a good structure for moisture retention (water holding capacity). Ideally a rotovator should be used as it is one of the best tools to create a good seed surface.

You can read more on soil compaction and prevention and our basic soil preparation guide.

Beetroot crop rotation

Good crop rotation will keep your soil healthy and fertile. Beetroot can safely be rotated with the following other crops:

  • Legumes – sun hemp, velvet beans, cowpeas, green peas, lupins and green beans.
  • Babala
  • Cereals
  • Tomatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Onions, carrots – skip one season with another crop





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