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. 

Trough of vegetables

Getting Started

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 seeds - beetroot, courgette and green beans

 

Beetroot 

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.

SowingThere 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.

 

Green and Flat beans

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.

 

Courgettes

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.

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.