The Root of Flavor

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in: Gardening

No other vegetable reveals the great taste disparity between homegrown and store-bought than a root vegetable. The crisp, sweet taste of a garden-harvested carrot can shock the taste buds, causing one to wonder how they ever endured the lackluster orange cellulose found in the local supermarket. If you’re taken with the beautiful winter crops showing up in farmers markets right now, take heart: They’re easy to produce in your own garden.

Historically, root vegetables constituted a large part of the food crop grown in kitchen gardens because of their excellent storage ability. In cool areas of the country, crops can be left in the ground, lifted and stored in root cellars or even kept in earthen pits dug in the garden itself. In warmer climates, it is best to harvest root vegetables as you need them. The sowing times for these crops are seasonal, and vary by climate zone. As a general rule, root crops are best sown in cooler fall temperatures and then allowed to grow on slowly through the winter months.

Certain varietals, such as parsnips and celeriac, improve in flavor when subjected to very cold weather; it condenses their natural sugars. Nutritionally, root vegetables are rich in fiber, low in calories and packed with vitamins and minerals. Since they’re so easy to grow, they are an absolute must for an urban kitchen garden. Here are my picks for a selection of easy-to-grow root crops:

Displays of parsnips piled high next to celery root.

Parsnips

This long-season vegetable (winter vegetables can take anywhere from 45 days to three months to mature) is, to some, an acquired taste.  Historically, it was grown as nutritious fodder for animals, but it has been refined through selective breeding and is now a staple in the winter garden. Recommended varieties: Cobham Improved Marrow, Hollow Crown, Tender and True and The Student.

Carrots

Originating in Middle and Far East, the earliest carrots were white, purple and red, but in the 17th century the Dutch bred the orange carrot that we know today. Recommended varieties: Royal Chantennay, St. Valery, Scarlet Nantes, Danvers, Belgian White and Persian Ronde.

Parsley

Grown primarily for its leaves, this kitchen staple can be allowed to grow through the season for the taproot, which can be roasted, boiled or mashed. You can also add it to potatoes for a distinctive parsley aroma. Recommended varieties: Hamburg is the best variety for root production. Curled leaf and Italian are leaf varietals.

Salsify

This unusual, long-season root vegetable boasts a distinctive taste some liken to that of an oyster. It has been selectively bred to produce a decent-sized taproot. Recommended varieties: Sandwich Island is the lone variety worth growing in the kitchen garden.

Scorozera

This is essentially a black type of salsify that produces a long, narrow, highly nutritious root that is best left in the garden for two full years before harvesting. Recommended varieties: Maxim and Geante Noir de Russe.

Turnips

Unlike many root crops, quick-growing turnips can be sown year round. The greens are edible as well. Recommended varieties:  Purple Top, Golden Ball, and Gilfeather.

Winter radish

Relatively fast growing, radishes were historically grown and eaten much like turnips.  Today they are used raw, sliced in salads and, on occasion, boiled. Recommended varieties: Round Black Spanish, Chinese White, Violet de Gournay and Tama Hybrid.

Beets

This delightful vegetable is a perennial favorite. Somewhat heat tolerant, it can be grown both in cold temperatures and moderate summer weather. The extreme summer heat of the Southwest is not suitable, but the region’s winter months are ideal. The greens are also delicious in salads or sautéed. Recommended varieties: Detroit, Chioggia and Bulls Blood,

Celery root may look intimidating, but it's very versatile.

Celery Root

A relative of celery, celeriac has a denser texture. This slow-growing vegetable is delectable and should be more widely known. It is easier to grow in cool climates. Recommended varieties: Dolvi, Large Smooth Prague and Mentor.

Chicory

Chicory is grown in a two-step process: The first year, the plant is planted in the ground then it is lifted and then the roots are grown (forced) in pots of sand. Because this second stage is done in the dark, the resulting leaves are pale and tender. It is best grown in a cold zone. Recommended varieties: Witloof, Turbo and Flash.

Leeks

This delicate member of the onion family can be grown year round and is delicious in soups and stews. It can also be eaten alone—leeks are delicious on the grill. The leek also makes a spectacular flowering plant if allowed to go to seed. Recommended varieties: Musselburgh, Prizetaker, Lancelot and Carentan.

Tips for planting: Always grow root crops from seed in well-tilled and debris-free soil. (Overly rich soil can cause forking in the roots and early onset bolting.) Do not be afraid to sow thickly — you can thin out the seedlings when they are 2 to 3 inches tall. Harvest baby root crops a few weeks after the first thinning and allow the remaining plants to grow on to full size.  Turnips and beets can be grown exclusively for their greens. If this is your intent, sow the seeds fairly thickly in rows and harvest only the greens throughout the season.


John Lyons is the founder of Earthmatters, a gardening school in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, and The Woven Garden, a firm specializing in edible landscaping. He has written on gardening for the Los Angeles Times and California Gardener.

Photos from top: Fresh radishes on display at Manhattan’s Union Square farmers market; Parsnips piled high next to celery root; Celery root may look intimidating but is very versatile. Credits: Martha Rose Shulman

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