Sow. Grow. Dig. Eat.
That’s basically all it takes to grow cool-season root crops, like beets, carrots, radishes and turnips.
These earthy edibles are among the easiest winter vegetables to grow. They take up little space. They deliver rapid results, with the first ready to eat six to eight weeks after sprouting.
And the frilly shoots and sturdy roots are content to live out their lives in containers. Provided they get at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, you can grow them in pots outside your kitchen door, thereby avoiding muddy footprints in and out of the garden over winter.
Very light, loose soil with excellent drainage is a must. Otherwise, your roots may be stubby, malformed, difficult to harvest and susceptible to rot.
Break up the soil with a shovel or garden fork, then work in lots of fine-textured compost or other well-decomposed organic material to improve the fertility and tilth.
If you’re starting with sandier soil, you’re in luck. But if you have heavy clay, build broad mounds or switch to raised beds so that you can better control the texture. Or give up on the ground altogether and fill a container with a lightweight potting soil or a blend of a general potting soil and a cactus and succulent mix.
When you’re done prepping it, the soil should smell good, be crumbly, feel a little silty or gritty, and slip through your fingers like sand falling through an hourglass.
Wherever the location, make sure that the fresh, loose soil is 8 to 18 inches deep, depending on what you grow. In general, you’ll need to dig about twice the depth of the crop to account for the combined length of the root, its “tail” and another few inches.
For instance, petite Sparkler radishes are about the size of a golf ball. Add their 3 to 4-inch-long tails plus a little wiggle room, and you’re up to 8 inches deep. Slender Sugarsnax carrots grow 12 inches long, plus another few inches of tail. You’ll need a full 18 inches of loose, deep soil for them to grow properly.
Direct Sowing Your Seeds
Sow your root crops directly where they’ll grow. Do not start them in flats or containers, where they can quickly exceed the depth, become stunted and stop growing. Even if they don’t slam into the bottom of the container, they may still balk at transplanting.
• Shape shallow furrows In your beautifully prepped soil with your fingers, a trowel or a broad stick. Follow the depth and spacing instructions on the individual seed packets.
• Pour the tiny seeds from the packet into your hand, then pinch and dribble them into the furrows.
• Gently brush the soil from the sides of the furrows over the seeds to create a thin covering about a quarter-inch to a half-inch thick.
• Lightly sprinkle the soil with a water bucket or hose. Too much force can dislodge the seeds before they’ve had a chance to root into the ground.
• Protect your soon-to-emerge seedlings from marauding birds by netting the bed.
• Keep the soil moist. Within a week to 10 days, you should see the first sprouts.
• Once your seedlings have produced several sets of true leaves, begin thinning them to their recommended spacing. Toss the fresh thinnings into soups or salads.
• Once the frilly tops of the remaining seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, remove the bird netting.
Root crops need consistent irrigation for uniform growth and to prevent cracking. If winter rains don’t comply, water at least once a week. Apply an inch-thick layer of fine-textured mulch to maintain moisture on the soil surface.
When your roots approach their maturity dates, brush back the soil to check the width and color of their “shoulders.” Pull one if you’re not sure whether they’re ripe.
Depending on when you sow your first roots, you may be able to plant several more rounds before warm weather begins next spring. Be sure to rejuvenate the soil each time.
Or plan on succession planting. Instead of sowing an entire packet now, sow a new row every few weeks. Your roots will mature in waves, rather than all at once.
Or interplant your seeds with slower-growing, cool-season crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. You’ll have plenty of time to harvest the roots before the larger edibles fill in.
Patience may be required. If we have a string of cool, rainy days, the roots may stall out, taking longer to mature. Those 8-week carrots could end up taking 12 weeks. But when they’re ready, they’ll still taste just as crunchy and delicious.
This article was first published in the Winter 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.