Root crops often gain a bad reputation for their unsightly appearance and their lackluster taste. But that doesn’t mean that when prepared properly, they can’t be delicious. Many root crops aren’t actually roots; some are tuberous growths that fall under the classifications of corms, rhizomes, and tubers. Considered European poverty food by some, they are actually quite nutritious and form a staple of many Thanksgiving and Christmas dishes. If beets and radishes don’t sound appetizing, then garlic and potatoes will appeal to even the pickiest of eaters.
Common Root Vegetables to Grow
The crisp coldness of winter lends a surprising sweetness to root crops that have adapted to survive freezing temperatures. Many of these cold hardy vegetables will tolerate light frosts – the hardiest will tolerate moderate freezes. Common root vegetables such as carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, and radishes will survive temperatures above 25 °F. Make sure to add a protective layer of mulch and row covers to keep your plants safe.
Root crops have evolved from staid browns and oranges to vibrantly colored heirloom varieties fit for a king. From kaleidoscope carrots to pink-stalked celery, these vegetables have come a long way from their provincial origins. Many of those appear in intense colors and whimsical shapes, as if straight from a page of folklore.
Benefits of Growing Root Vegetables
Root vegetables have long been an integral part of many cuisines around the world. On a physical level, many are starchy and high in complex carbohydrates, key nutrients that promote sustained energy. Tubers such are potatoes are perfect to add to a warm meal during a frigid winter afternoon. Non-starchy root vegetables, commonly found in the carrot family, are excellent sources of nutrients and dense in fiber. Below are a few of the healthiest root vegetables to incorporate into your diet this winter.
- Garlic: A member of the Allium family, garlic is closely related to onions, chives, and leeks. Allicin, the active compound in garlic, has been known to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and boost immune function. Though garlic has long been noted for its potent medicinal properties, it has found its success in the culinary world with its pungent taste, used to flavor soups, meats, potato dishes, and side dishes.
- Carrots: Carrots are high in vitamin A and K, calcium, and fiber. The notion that carrots can improve vision sounds apocryphal, a myth made up to get kids to eat their vegetables, but there is truth to it. While carrots sadly won’t significantly improve your eyesight, they do contain substances that prevent free radicals from causing eye damage. Carrots contain beta carotene and lutein, important compounds linked to eye health.
- Potatoes: With 2000 varieties, potatoes are a prolific crop that remains one of the most versatile and popular vegetables. A savory plate of potatoes is sure to alleviate the pain of cooking on a cold, unpleasant day. As well as being filling, they are high in fiber and vitamin C, which may help lower bad cholesterol. While French fries are delicious, they should be avoided: baked, boiled, or steamed potatoes are healthier and more nutritious.
- Rutabaga: It’s easy to swear off root vegetables after encountering rutabagas, an unsightly crop deemed a food of last resort during periods of famine in Europe. Even those less judgmental are at a loss of what to do with this bulbous vegetable. Yet, for those rare few that are able to accept it, it works well diced and served as a side dish with ham – a classic southern dish calls for coating it in sugary glaze. Rutabagas contains vitamin C, essential for cellular repair, as well as fiber and potassium.
Best Practices for Growing Root Vegetables
The upside to being a “poor man’s crop” is that root vegetables are low maintenance and have a remarkable ability to tolerate cold weather, making them the perfect additions to a winter garden. Root vegetables flourish in raised garden beds because they prefer rich, loose soil. Raised garden beds reduce compaction prevalent in traditional garden beds and provide an elevated platform that makes for easy gardening. In addition, they warm up quicker, allowing you to extend the growing season. One thing to note is that root crops are not suited to transplanting, as the process may inadvertently damage the roots, and are usually sown directly.
Light and Temperature
Generally requiring 4 – 6 hours of sunlight, root crops will survive in areas with moderate light or partial shade. They prefer cooler temperatures, as it allows them to concentrate energy on the roots, and will even benefit from a light frost.
Root vegetables require deep, well-drained, loose soil, as compacted soil can result in stunted or misshapen roots. Sandy soils are ideal; steer clear from clay soils and soils high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can hinder root growth, diverting it into leaf production.
Even watering is important, with about an inch of water per week. When the roots are maturing, pay extra attention. As with all vegetables, water should be delivered at the root level instead of the leaves. Beets, however, are drought resistant and will benefit from less frequent watering.
Oftentimes, all that is required is sandy, loamy soil. Root crops will grow quickly in soils high in phosphorus. Phosphorus can be found in aged manures and “meals” like bone meal, fish meal or rock phosphates. High quality compost can also be incorporated to enhance the soil structure.
One of the most bothersome pests are moles, who will leave destructive tunnels as they burrow underground, looking for grubs. Voles are a related pest, an opportunistic feeder that will feed indiscriminately. Poison bait is often touted as a solution, but that is not recommended for vegetable gardens. For a salient method for deterring these pests, try implementing gopher nets in your raised beds.
Root crops are harvested by digging them up. To avoid damaging them, gently dig into the dirt with a fork or hori hori knife. For carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and celeriac, the foliage will need to be trimmed.
Overwintering Root Vegetables
During winter, when daylight is less than 10 hours a day, plants will enter a period of dormancy. During this period, some gardeners choose to store their root vegetables right in the ground. Generally, there are three options for those interested in taking this route, with an insulative layer of mulch being the easiest.