Garden Crops to Dig

It’s what’s going on underground that counts.

| September/October 2008

Root Recipes

Harvesting root crops is like digging for buried treasure, and banking them in the root cellar is akin to saving money for a rainy day. Maybe they aren’t as glamorous as artichokes and radicchio, but carrots, beets, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas and turnips are staples people have depended on for thousands of years. Often referred to as lowly vegetables, root crops have recently enjoyed a renaissance.

They are among the first and last vegetables to mature – think radishes to rutabagas. They’re ideal for gardens in cool short season regions because they have no definite stage of maturity, and they’re perfect for small gardens – or even containers – because they take up little space. All root vegetables prefer a deep, loose soil that retains moisture yet is well-drained. Root crops do not grow well in very acid soils (pH 6 to 6.5 is ideal), and all are best seeded directly into the garden.


Native to Afghanistan, cultivated carrots belong to the Umbelliferae family that includes parsley, fennel and anise. They made their way to China in the 15th century. Like most root crops, carrots are biennials that normally require two growing seasons to produce flowers and seeds. Since we eat the roots before the plant matures, we never see that final growth stage. The orange varieties Americans favor came from a yellow mutation in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Today, new carrot varieties are bred to be high in beta-carotene – a powerful antioxidant that is converted into vitamin A after eating. The darker the orange color, the more beta-carotene the carrot in question contains. The saying that carrots are good for your eyes isn’t just an old wives’ tale. Vitamin A helps us see in dim light and can help prevent night blindness.

Carrots are among the easiest vegetables to grow, harvest and store. Vermont gardener Edward C. Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, says soil preparation and moisture are key. He grows carrots in raised beds that he has dug deeply. “The thing you’ve got to watch out for with carrots is rocky soil,” says Smith. “Any time a carrot runs into an obstruction, it will split in two and start growing two shoots. And the soil needs to be very fine because those tiny seeds have to be in contact with moisture to germinate.” Smith waters his seed bed with a gentle spray at least once a day. I’ve sprinkled Jiffy Mix (a commercial seed starting soil composed of sphagnum and perlite) on top of my carrot seeds and covered them with a strip of floating row cover to keep them from getting washed away by heavy rain.

Carrots are by far his customers’ favorite vegetable, says Rob Johnston, owner of Johnny’s Select Seeds in Albion, Maine. “I love good storage carrots,” he says, “and the best one for storage is ‘Bolero,’ a variety that is resistant to blight.” Territorial Seeds’ horticulturist Josh Kirschenbaum’s favorite carrot is ‘Mokum,’ a combination of ‘Nantes’ and ‘Emperator’ types that performs well in the company’s Oregon trial gardens. Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seeds really likes the new varieties of colored carrots, and she stores them in the ground all year in her Zone 7-8 gardens in Felton, California.

Here in northern Minnesota, we store our carrots in damp sand in a cool room where temperatures hover near 40ºF. When he can count on snow, Smith just mulches his carrot bed heavily with straw and covers it with fencing to keep deer out. “We can go out in January, pull back the mulch and those carrots are the tastiest ones you’ll ever eat,” he says.

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