Growing Root Vegetable Crops

Interested in supporting locally grown food? There's nothing more local than your own backyard, and root crops are a great veggie to grow. They're nutritious, simple to grow and can be easily stored.

Driven by the desire to have the freshest and healthiest food, I embarked on what I call my “Island Diet.” I began by researching how far food travels from farm to plate. The results were predictable: transporting food was stressing the environment and diminishing the quality and nutrition of what we eat. Many groups and movements are being organized to help us become aware of how the long-distance shipping of food contributes to global warming, along with other negative social and economic impacts. If we were to all grow a small amount of our own fruit and vegetables, as well as support locally grown food, think of the difference we could make! I am lucky to have a large yard and the ability to produce plenty for myself and my family, but even those with small balconies can easily grow edibles in containers and hanging baskets.


Six root crop tips

1. Sow parsnips late in the season, well after soil has warmed, to increase germination. A common mistake is to sow too early. 2. Keep potatoes and lime separate, as lime increases scab on potatoes. 3. Companion plants for root crops include marigolds, tansy and cosmos. 4. Enjoy the tops of your beets and carrots, they are wonderful in soup. 5. Root crops do not transplant well, so always direct sow. 6. Add fireplace or woodstove ash to root crops; it supplies potassium, phosphorus and trace elements.

Root crops are nutritious, simple to grow and can be easily stored. Climate zone permitting, you can simply mulch the beds with leaves or straw; in colder areas with hard freezes, you’ll need to tidily stack your crops in a root cellar. Crops such as radish, which do not keep, can be canned whole or processed and enjoyed as relish or chutneys. In spring, I rotate my crops, swapping root crops with leafy veggies. The reason for this is that root crops don’t do well with high levels of fresh compost or manure; it encourages them to be hairy and disfigured. After a full season of top-crop production, the manure and compost added the spring before is broken down thoroughly, and the soil is simply prepared by double digging and the addition of sand, zeolite and organic granular fertilizer. This creates a free-draining, loose soil that roots can easily grow down into. My rule of thumb for root crops is to add a 5-cm (2-in.) layer of 75 percent washed sand and 25 percent zeolite to the bed, and then dig it down 20 cm (8 in.) each time I prepare a bed for sowing. Root crops produce the tiniest of seeds—sowing them gives us cramps in our hands, strains our eyes and tests our patience. Spacing is very important so I look for pelleted seeds or use a manual seeding device. Be sure to follow seed package directions for depth, spacing, and time to plant. The most critical element is moisture, and it must be constant. Left for even a day without water, a seed will fail to germinate or a root crop seedling will collapse and die. To reduce the chance of this happening, invest in a reusable row cover and install it immediately after sowing the seed. This white cloth, available at garden centres, allows light, air and water to penetrate, but protects seed and seedlings from flying insects, wind and intense sunlight and heat. I drape it over my raised wood-edged beds, 25 cm (10 in.) above the soil, and using nailing strips, nail it into the sides of the raised beds. Come fall I remove it and tuck it away until the following year. Practice early-morning deep watering to encourage roots to grow down into the earth where they will be protected from summer heat. It takes plenty of energy to produce colourful, tasty and nutritious roots. The goal is to develop the root, but the top is important too as it is what captures, absorbs, and processes the natural sunlight necessary for healthy plants. A great way to encourage both is with a liquid kelp or fish fertilizer, alternated every 10 days with a liquid 4*2*3 fertilizer. This will provide the proper balance of NPK as well as necessary trace elements and minerals. Any extra nutrients will be supplied by the granular organic fertilizer added to the garden bed at planting time.


Dragon carrot: This sweet purple carrot is orange inside—beautiful sliced on a diagonal and added to a salad. It can be enjoyed fresh, boiled or baked and is 25 to 30 cm (10 to 12 in.) long. Ready in 70 days. Atomic Red carrot: This one is best harvested young as a dipping carrot or enjoyed cooked. These 23-cm (9-in.) carrots are red inside and out. Ready in 70 days. Yellowstone carrot: Canary yellow to the core, this sweet flavourful carrot is 30 cm (12 in.) long. Easy to germinate, with high yields. Red Meat radish: Green on the outside and soft red on the inside, this radish is wonderful on a dip tray or pickled in a jar. It’s a large radish, growing to 7.5 cm (3 in.). 50 days to maturity.

Organic fertilizer for root crops

This controlled-release fertilizer, low in nitrogen but high in phosphorus and trace elements, is specially created for root crops. It can be applied prior to seed sowing by blending with 75 percent washed sand and 25 percent zeolite or perlite. Spread over the entire bed to a depth of 5 cm (2 in.) and then dig into the top 20 cm (8 in.) of soil. Apply at a rate of 250 mL per square m (1 cup per 10 sq. ft.). 2 cups (500 mL) alfalfa meal 1⁄2 cup (125 mL) kelp meal 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) rock phosphate 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) bone meal Blend and use the same day.

Black Spanish round radish: Black on the outside and pure white inside. Up to 7.5 cm (3 in.), this radish is perfect served fresh or pickled. Burpees Golden beet: This beet is sweet and bright, with orange skin and yellow flesh. The green tops are as tasty as the root. Best roasted or steamed. Ready in 60 days. Chioggia beet: An Italian favourite with contrasting stripes of bright red and white, this small round beet, 5 cm (2 in.), is best roasted or steamed; it’s not recommended for pickling. Serve it sliced to display its beauty. Gladiator parsnip: Gladiator is well-known for its vigorous growth and excellent germination. Its long white roots are sweet and best served roasted, mashed or in soup. 110 days to maturity. Cranberry Red potato: This is a high-yielding potato with bright red skin and pink flesh. Excellent for frying or sauteing. Ready in 80 days. Caribe potato: Bright-purple skin and snow-white flesh. Serve roasted, mashed or boiled. Ready in 70 days. Russian Banana fingerling potato: These buttery, smooth yellow potatoes are perfect for French fries and potato salads. An heirloom variety, it’s late to mature. Ready in 110 days. Carver sweet potato: Yes, we can grow these nutritious wonders at home. Red-skinned with bright- orange flesh, it’s wonderful baked or mashed. Ready in 100 days.


Preventive pest control is important when growing root veggies; when there are signs of pests, the damage may already have been done below ground. A yearly application of beneficial nematodes will help with wireworms, cutworms, and other soil-dwelling grubs. Apply a row cover to prevent flying pests, such as carrot rust fly, from invading and laying eggs. Be quick about replacing the cover after thinning young plants, for the smell of the bruised foliage is what attracts the pests. Laying down 1x2s along the edge of the floating row cover will help. If you staple the edges onto the laths, you can easily pick up the side to work on the patch and replace it as soon as you are finished. To keep out the female carrot fly, try wrapping a curtain of any material (fleece; plastic; tight mesh; row cover) onto stakes around the carrot patch. Ensure the material is tight to the ground. On exposed beds I have had success trapping flying insects with yellow sticky cards; the trick is to hang the card in the foliage near the top of the plant. Even if you don’t see any pests, it’s a good idea to have a few cards around to monitor the situation. Periodically check the cards, identify any pests and then find an organic solution. Wash all root crops under warm water using a plastic pot scrubber dedicated to vegetables. For extra cleansing dip washed vegetables into a lemon-water bath.