When I think root vegetables I think cool fall days turning to cold winters and warm stew. Beets, Carrots, Radishes, Parsnips, Rutabaga, and Turnips are great keepers and can be the base to some oh so simple and oh so good comfort food.
Beets come in a few different varieties; common garden beets, stock beets (Mangels) and sugar beets. All come in many shapes, sizes and colors. I prefer golden beets to the traditional red beets. I plant both, but usually more of the golden; I like the flavor better.
Stock Beets are usually grown as a crop to feed animals. They can grow to an enormous size in a rather short time and keep well. You can easily winter your family goats on stock beets, carrots and winter squash if you don’t have the means to grow and harvest hay. They can be fed to cow and if cooked fed to pigs as well.
Sugar Beets contribute a great deal to commercial refined sugar. (I will spare you my “soapbox sermon” on sugar). If you wanted to make your own sugar from beets the closest you will come (without fancy equipment) is sugar beet syrup.
Good Old Fashioned Garden Beets are great. They are so easy to grow and usually yield excellent too. These can be planted starting in early spring and every few weeks through the summer. As they ripen, the early ones should be eaten, canned, dried or frozen. The last to be harvested in the fall can be kept in a root cellar. Plant them about an inch apart in loose fertile soil. Most beet seed is actually a clump of seed, so no matter how you space them there will be thinning to do. As the grow thin them to about 3 inches apart. The thinnings can be eaten fresh or steamed or any other way you like or fed to the chickens and pigs.
Pick the beets when they are no bigger than 3 inches across, any bigger and they will get rather woody. If it’s late into fall cut the tops and leave the beet in the ground as long as possible; they keep the best there. When they need to be dug, cut the tops and dig the roots. If you plan to keep them in the cellar keep them as close to freezing as possible with out actually freezing them. They also should be kept slightly damp or they can get soft and shrivel. In the cellar they should be kept in small bins or pile rather than large ones. The larger the pile the better a chance of mold and decay.
Otherwise storing options are the same as anything else, canning, pickling, drying, freezing etc.
There are so many different types of carrots that should be more popular than the traditional orange ones in the grocery store. Last year I had five different types planted, each a different color. Canning carrots was so much more fun with the different varieties.
Carrots like all roots will take the easiest route to grow. If you have rocky soil and plant a long variety of carrots, you may be disappointed when the all grow crooked and misshaped because they have been avoiding the rocks. In clay or rocky soil you would have better luck with a short breed carrot. A garden with loose even sandy soil can produce some of the nicest long carrots.
Carrots can be planted in early spring, even before the last frost. Seeds should be about a 1/4 inch deep and a couple inches apart. Carrot seeds are very tiny, most people will scatter the seed in the bed or in a row. Allow them to get about 2-3 inches tall and then begin to thin them until each has enough room.
Knowing when the carrots are ready for harvest is as simple as pulling one. They can stand a light frost so don’t worry about leaving them too long. Unlike beets they won’t get woody if the grow longer.
To store carrots in a root cellar, cut the greens off and layer them between damp sawdust or sand making sure the carrots don’t touch each other. If you are not storing them in the cellar they can be stored the same as beets.
Parsnips are a very underrated vegetable. Planting them requires well worked soil and deeply worked too; up to a 1 1/2 feet deep! If you have sandy soil they will do best there. Plant them as you would carrots and thin to about 4 inches apart. I gave up on my parsnips the first year. I thought I had old seed because parsnip seed doesn’t tend to last more than a year. I later found out it can take 3 weeks or more for them to germinate. I ended up with parsnips growing through my green beans.
Aside from parsnips needing to be dug rather than pulled the rest can go just the same a carrots
Radishes come in a surprising number of varieties. Did you know that wasabi is actually a type of radish that is dried and powdered before it’s used? There are the podded variety that grow a seeded pod up to nine inches long, that is eaten like edible pea pods. These are called Rat Tail Radishes. There are black radishes that are a winter variety and usually cooked like turnips. Sakurajima is another variety that is cooked like turnips, but need to be planted 2 feet apart because this can grow to be 50 pounds! Daikon is another large variety. Not 50 pounds large but 2-4 inches across and 6-20 inches long and has a peppery flavor. The White or Winter Radish is very close to the Red Radishes that are best known here. The Winter and Red are very similar in flavor but the white gets bigger in size.
You may notice I haven’t mentioned Horseradish yet. It’s actually not in the Radish family, rather a part of the Mustard family.
I am most familiar with the red and winter varieties. Maturity can be as early as 20 days, which is great for me who gets very impatient for my first garden harvest of the season. They can also take as long as 60 days. I like to plant a few different times. The first, right away, as soon as possible in the spring and just a few for fresh eating. The second, I try to time with my salad greens, and sometimes a third late in the fall. Plant them about 3 inches apart in loose soil. To deter root eating insects, add some wood ash to the area. Keeping the radishes well watered will allow them to grow quickly and will result in a more mild flavor. Less water will result in slower growing, hotter flavored and woody textured roots.
To save radish seeds allow a plant or two to grow beyond maturity (don’t save the early bolters). The plant will send up a tall stalk, which will flower and grow a seed pod. Allow the whole plant to dry up before removing the seeds pod.
We usually store winter radishes and eat the reds right out of the garden. To store them we use the same method as carrots. They can be froze, canned (same as you would carrots) or dehydrated.
Rutabagas also known as “Swedish Turnip” are a cross between and turnip and cabbage. They do very well in cold climates and not too well in hot climates. Planting in the very early spring or late fall in a cold frame or low tunnel will produce a great crop. Warm summer days will cause the plant to grow great tops and small woody roots. Planting should be done about a 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep and 8 inches apart. In loose soil.
They can be harvested any time you feel they are big enough. The large roots are great for livestock. If you are able to leave them in the ground through a light frost the flavor will improve; freezing will give them a poor flavor.
Store your harvest in the same manner as carrots.
Turnips are a great crop for cooler climates (a little warmer than rutabaga weather). Plant them 1/4 inch deep and about 6 inches apart. These too like wood ashes. The best harvest size is 3 inches across, larger is ok but better for livestock. These follow the same guidelines as rutabagas for harvesting and storing.
All the vegetables we have talked about in this article, with the exception of radishes, produce seed in the same manner. It takes two seasons. The first season, pick the best plants that you would like seed from. In the fall very carefully dig them up, cut the tops off, leaving about an inch of green. Store them in damp sand or soil in the root cellar for the season. In early spring, carefully replant them in the garden. They will begin to grow again. They will send up tall stalks that will then flower and produce seed. Most all will have the possibility of cross pollinating with each other. To keep your seeds “true” you will need a minimum of a 1/4 mile between varieties.