Seed to Fork with Kathy Slack - a beginners guide to growing beetroot, courgette & green beans
Join food award-winning writer, cook and veg grower, Kathy Slack, as she guides you through a summer of growing. Kathy has picked three of her favourite, most delicious (and easy!), vegetable harvests – beetroot, green beans and courgettes – to show you how to grow and cook them. Start by sowing seeds with her in spring; check on progress in May; then be ready to harvest and cook in August. Kathy will explain what to do at each stage and then suggest a few simple recipes to celebrate your harvest at the table.
The hardest thing for any veg grower, new or seasoned, is knowing when to sow and knowing when to sit on your hands. The British weather is famously unpredictable and even the most jaded gardener can be excited into sowing seeds by a warm spell in March, only to find their seedlings buried in snow by April.
To avoid such anguish, and in the knowledge that I have never been able to sit on my hands, I tend to sow seeds under cover in late April, satisfying my new season enthusiasm but still giving my seeds the best chance of success. ‘Under cover’ doesn’t mean you need a greenhouse. Or even a garden. A windowsill will do perfectly well and all the crops I’ll be working with here are great in pots on balconies or in a yard.
I’ve selected three of my favourite crops – beetroot, courgette and green beans - to grow with you over the next few months. They can all be sown at roughly the same time, transplanted to pot or plot in late May, and harvested from around August, depending on the growing situation and the weather. I’ll talk you through each stage of growing and then, come late summer, we’ll have a trio of vegetables to harvests and cook with.
Let’s get started (you can select the links below to jump to each section)
- Sowing your beetroot, bean and courgette seeds (video guide)
- Planting out your beetroot, bean and courgette seedlings (video guide)
- Harvesting your beetroot, bean and courgettes (video guide)
- Beetroot (text guide)
- Transplanting and growing on
- Green (flat) beans (text guide)
- Transplanting and growing on
- Courgette (text guide)
- Transplanting and growing on
Beetroot produces the brightly coloured globe-shaped root that you eat under the soil. They poke up above the ground as they grow creating a row of semi-buried rubies in the soil. They are generally pest free, undemanding and fast growing. Plus, they taste delicious in everything from a raw slaw to a pickle.
Sowing: There is a rainbow of beetroot varieties to choose from. I prefer the traditional red ones – ‘Boltardy’ is a staple – but I also sow some amber ones (‘Golden’ is very sweet and bright yellow) and some candy-striped ‘Chioggia’ too. Avoid the white varieties, they don’t taste of much and aren’t nearly as pretty as their siblings.
You can sow beetroot anytime between March and August which is handy because, if you have space, you can stagger the harvest by sowing some in April and more in July giving you a longer harvest. Though you can sow directly into the growing site (by making a 2cm deep trench in finely sieved soil, sowing the seeds 1cm apart and covering) I find the seedlings are much stronger when sown in modules (trays of tiny pots all joined together) and less likely to succumb to slugs, blackbirds and mice which all love to snack on a freshly germinated seedling.
Fill a module tray with a sandy, free-draining seed compost. Poke a 2cm deep hole in the middle of each module and drop 2 seeds in the hole. Cover with a little soil but don’t pack it down or the seed might struggle to break through. Water well and keep in a sheltered spot, watering as soon as the soil looks dry on top. I keep mine on a window sill or kitchen table.
When they germinate, you may need to thin the seedlings to prevent overcrowding and malformed roots. Beetroot seeds are actually clusters of seeds stuck together, so if more than 2 seedlings pop up you need to pinch out the others, leaving 1-2 of the strongest plants to grow on.
Transplanting and growing on: Once the beetroot seedlings have a few colourful, baby leaves on them, it’s time to plant them out. Do this during a warm spell because, whilst beetroot will tolerate a mild frost, new seedlings benefit from a gentle week when they first meet the wilds of the outdoors.
First prepare your planting ground. If you are planting into pots, something more than 30cm deep is perfect. And make sure it has lots of drainage holes in the bottom. Multi-purpose, peat free, compost is ideal for transplanting into because it has plenty of nutrients and is free-draining – a beetroot will rot in clay or claggy soil. Next, water the tray of seedlings well, then pop one cluster of beetroot out of its module, disturbing the soil as little as possible, and plant into your prepared ground. Don’t bury the seedlings in the ground, plant them so the surface of the soil in the module and the bed line up. Plant a module every 10cm. Water well and leave to grow on. Keep watering weekly if the summer is dry, and weed around the plants as they grow, but generally beetroot require little attention besides the occasional kind word.
Harvesting: When the roots are tennis-ball size or bigger they are ready to harvest. Simply grab the leaves and pull, though I keep one hand on surrounding roots so they don’t come along for the ride too. Beetroot will stay in the ground for months, so don’t feel you have to pick them as soon as they are ready. Assuming you can keep the slugs at bay, you can harvest beetroot until well into autumn. Many say they don’t over-winter, but some of mine survive just fine and can be picked into the new year.
Green beans grow on a long vine which is trained up a support. They flower profusely, and beautifully, before the flowers turn into pods for eating. You can choose thin or fat pods, round or flat, dwarf or tall (the yield of the latter is much more, though) and the colours can be green, purple or yellow. A homegrown bean is sweet and tender, a different beast from shop-bought.
Sowing: Pretty though they are, I find the purple and yellow French beans can be sludgy when cooked so I stick to the green ones – ‘Cobra’ variety is a safe bet. Flat beans are well-worth growing too. In fact, if I only had space for one type of green bean, I would favour flat over the traditional round ones. Flat beans are just like green French beans but, obviously, flat. I see them as a better version of a runner bean – stringless, not woody, and with big flat pods that make for excellent eating. Try ‘Helda’ variety or ‘Hunter’.
Bean seeds are large and need to be planted singly and small pot (5cm diameter) are better than modules for sowing. In mid to late April, fill each pot with peat-free, multipurpose compost and push two seeds 5cm deep into the soil on either side of the pot. Water and keep on a warm windowsill. Beans do not like the cold and will catch a chill and die in a frost, so keep them indoors.
Transplanting and growing on: Once all chance of frost has passed (for most parts of the UK this is late May) you can plant out bean seedlings. They are quite delicate and the weather will come as a shock to them after a lifetime snuggled on a warm windowsill so, in the days leading up to your planned transplanting, expose the seedlings to the fresh air for a few hours at a time to acclimatise them to life outside. If the pots are on a windowsill, you can just open the window during the warmest part of the day, then extend the opening hours until planting day.
On planting day you need to create a structure for the beans to grow up before you plant them. Long sticks of willow or bamboo made into wigwams are ideal and works well in pots too. The pot should be 45cm diameter or bigger and at least 30cm deep, filled with peat-free, multipurpose compost and you can expect to fit around 8 canes into that space, tying them together at the top to form the support structure. Plant 2 seedlings per cane and encourage the infant tendrils to coil around the supports. I tie them in gently to help them along and you might need to do this a few times until they get established. Keep watered and feed pots with a liquid seaweed feed or a handful of chicken manure pellets every few weeks.
Harvesting: With beans, the more you pick, the more you get, so as soon as the pods are grown, pick them daily. Don’t just pull them off the vine as this can damage the neighbouring pods. Instead snip them at the top with scissors. And do pick them young before they turn tough and woody.
Beans don’t store for long so pick a little and often and use them in a couple of days for best effect. Picking encourages the plant to produce new flowers and therefore new pods, so pick regularly and you could have a harvest from August until the first frosts in late October.
Courgettes are the triffid of the veg patch. They start as a seed the size of your little fingernail and, by August, are enormous unwieldy monsters, with huge leaves, scratchy stems, and stuffed full at the base with courgettes – proper beasts. That said, they require gentle nurturing as seedlings. But once transplanted they expect little attention and will romp away all over your garden if left to their own devices.
Sowing: When it comes to choosing which variety of courgette to grow, the options are almost limitless. They can be green, yellow, white, straight, bent, long, round, striped… you name it. Some are more reliable than others, and I would suggest the new grower sticks to ‘Defender’ which are long, green, reliable and delicious.
As with beans, courgette seeds prefer to be planted in small, 5cm diameter pots of peat-free, multipurpose compost. They dislike any competition and, since germination is usually very good, I recommend sowing only one seed per pot at a depth of 2-3cm. Courgette seeds are large and flat but quite thin so can be prone to rotting if the soil is too wet. Best to water from underneath by sitting the pots in a tray of water so the soil can soak it up without becoming flooded.
Transplanting and growing on: Courgette seedlings are tender so keep them inside on a sunny windowsill until they have 2-3 proper leaves and it is past the end of May (when the chance of frost is over). They have fleshy, robust leaves so do not need to be acclimatised like beans, but it never hurts to break them in gently.
Courgettes are hungry plants (not surprising given their gargantuan growing habits) so when you plant them in the ground or in a pot, make sure the soil is enriched with well-rotted manure, or garden compost, or chicken manure pellets, or all three if you can. And give them plenty of space. A fully grown courgette planted in the ground will need about 90cm between it and the next plant, but since 2 plants will easily keep a family in courgettes for the summer, you don’t need many. To grow in pots, they need a large 50cm and plenty of regular watering and feeding.
Harvesting: Courgette flowers will be your first harvest. But take heed: pick too many flowers and you won’t have any fruit. A plant will have both male and female flowers on it; the former grow on long, straight, green stems and will never produce a fruit so go for these first. The female flowers have a swelling at the base of the flower which will grow into a fruit so be aware that picking these will mean sacrificing a future courgette.
Once the fruit themselves are grown you must pick as soon as they become 15-20cm long. Many times have I thought, “I’ll pick that courgette tomorrow” only to come back and find a huge marrow has developed overnight. And marrows are fine to eat, but not nearly as sweet and crunchy as small courgettes. Pick often and more fruit will come, right up until the first frosts.
The leaves are not edible, but they make great parcels for steaming fish, like a British version of a banana leaf.
Enjoying the Harvest
By September your garden will a jungle of beetroot, beans and courgettes and you will be enjoying them every day. But no matter how much you harvest, the wonder of knowing you have grown your own food never diminishes. To think that your bucket of beetroot was, only a few months ago, a handful of seeds is magical. And very, very tasty.