Friday, October 31, 2014

Fall Root Crops

Fall season has it's own unique colors, smells, sights, and activities.  Pumpkins, winter squash, and gourds are plentiful. Hay rides, corn mazes, Halloween parties, and Thanksgiving.  It is also the time to harvest root crops that where planted late summer. Root crops have been a staple that our ancestors have depended on to survive.  A rutabaga may not be the most glamorous and sought after vegetable in the garden but along with other root crops such as carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, and parsnips they are a delicious addition to fall meals and a great long term storage crop.
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Carrots belong to the Umbelliferae family along with parsley and fennel.  Carrots are biennials meaning they need two growing seasons to produce flowers and seed.  The orange varieties, which are a mutation, are high in beta-carotene.  This powerful antioxidant is converted to vitamin A.

Orange is not the only option when it comes to color.  The gardener has a rainbow of colors to choose from- purple, red, yellow, and white.

Growing Guide
  Carrots prefer a loose, moist soil free of rocks.  Any obstructions, such as rocks, the roots hit will cause them to split and start growing two shoots.  A deep dug raised bed of fine soil is ideal.  

The small seeds of a carrots need constant moisture to germinate and the fine soil allows for good surface contact to ensure good germination.  

Carrots are best sown directly in the garden.  The seeds can be mixed with fine soil in a shaker  or use your finger to make a small trench and distribute the seeds.  Just barely cover them and keep them moist.  Fluctuating moisture will cause poor germination.  You can cover the area with a row cover or weed cloth to keep the ground moist and remove it when they start to germinate. Water gently so you don't wash the seeds away.  After they germinate, mulch around carrots.  Carrots prefer even moisture throughout the growing season.  If the crowns of carrots are exposed cover them to prevent them from turning green and bitter.

 For more information on varieties of carrots here another post.

A bed of carrots and beets.


Beets are a member of the same family as chard and spinach.  The seeds are a cluster of multiple seeds and if not thinned will not develop roots. Technically the beet seed is not a seed at all but a dried fruit that may contain one to six seeds which is why they will require thinning. When thinning cut plants off at the ground  with scissors instead of pulling them out.

 Young beet greens are delicious in salads and smoothies.  Blood red beet tops are a beautiful maroon color and make delicious tops. I add them to salads.

 Older greens can be cooked in the same manner as chard and spinach.  My absolute favorite beet is Touchstone Gold.  It is sweeter than red beets and has a milder flavor.  They are so good roasted.

Beets store very well in the refrigerator.  Cut the tops off leaving 1 inch of green, brush off the dirt and store in bags in the a cool, dark place.  They can be canned, pickled,  or roasted. 

Beet roots have the highest sugar content of any vegetable and are extremely low in calories.  They are high in iron and potassium.  They are a great storage crop.

Beets.  The maroon leaves are the Bull's Blood Beet a favorite top to eat.

Rutabagas and Turnips

"There is nothing in the garden as unromantic as a turnip, unless perhaps it's a rutabaga.  Strong-flavored good storing root vegetables, they are rarely invited to sit at formal tables.  But they are good, earthy peasant food."  
Barbara Damrosch The Garden Primer

Rutabagas and turnips are often considered to be twins. Both have the same cultural requirements and similar taste.  They are actually two different species.  The rutabaga is a result of a hybridization between a cabbage and a turnip.  I prefer the taste of rutabagas over turnips.  They are sweeter.

Turnips have been cultivated anciently since the Romans.  Rutabagas are sometimes called "Swedes" and are believed to be native to Sweden.  Rutabaga's leaves are smooth, while a turnip green is rough and slightly hairy.  Rutabaga flesh is yellow, while a turnip flesh is white.  Turnips are rich in vitamins while rutabagas are high in beta-carotene.

The turnip is a quick maturing vegetable.  Ready in only a couple of months while the rutabaga is slower and needs four months to mature.  I plant both for fall crops.

Turnip roots are best harvested when the roots are 2-3 inches in diameter.  Rutabaga roots should be harvested when the roots are 4-5 inches in diameters.

Like beets and carrots they store well in the refrigerator, root cellar, or cold garage.


Parsnips are another very unromantic vegetable.  They are a rough, dirty white root.  Parsnip were anciently used as a sweeterener before the sugar beet came along.  Fed to pigs, they are said to sweeten the meat and make delicious hams.  Next spring we will be getting pigs and I will try this out.  Since I'm not overly fond of parsnips I wont' mind sharing with my pigs.

Parsnips seeds are very slow to germinate taking up to 21 days.  It's best to purchase new seeds each year.  Use the same cultivating methods as for carrots.  Sow the seeds in early spring when the daffodil blooms.  Wait until after the first frost to harvest parsnips.  A frost is what encourages them to develop their sweet flavor.  

This is a parsnip that I overwintered to save seeds.


As with many root crops, radishes are one of the anciently grown root crops.   There are many varieties of radishes.  They come in various shapes, sizes, and colors.  It is fun to experiment with new varieties every year.  

The key to growing a good radish is to grow them fast and harvest them fast. Left even one day to long in the garden they develop a hot sharp taste, become pithy, and split.  An impatient little root, many are ready in 21 days.  Also record the date you plant and days to maturity of the varieties you plant so you can harvest an edible radish.

They prefer cool spring and fall weather.

The key to enjoy these root crops is finding delicious recipes.  Here's a link to some good recipes that might make you rethink the root crops.

1 comment:

  1. I am having more success this year with my carrots than ever. I did not know to mulch them once they had their "fuzzy tops" I will take care of that tomorrow. I grow radishes although we don't eat a lot of them. I mostly give them away. I guess I grow them because my family just always has...silly me. My husband loves beets best. Thanks for your article.