Root crops are staples in many home vegetable gardens. Familiar members of this group include beets, carrots, and radishes. With planning and proper storage facilities, home gardeners can enjoy root crops through much of the year. Guidelines for harvesting and storing specific root crops are listed below.
Begin harvesting beets when the roots are 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. (Beet tops at this time make excellent greens.) The main beet harvest normally occurs when the roots are 1 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. Trim the tops to within 1/2 inch of the roots prior to storage. Plants beets about August 1 for a fall crop.
Harvest carrots when the roots are 3/4 inch or more in diameter. Trim off the tops 1/2 inch above the roots. Plant carrots about August 1 for a fall crop.
Celeriac is a type of celery grown for its thickened, edible root. The roundish roots have a delicate, nut-like flavor. Harvest celeriac when the roots are 2 to 3 inches in diameter.
The roots of horseradish make their greatest growth in late summer and early fall. To obtain the best crop, delay harvesting horseradish until October or November.
Cut off the foliage about 1 inch above the crown prior to storage. When storing horseradish, keep the roots out of light. Light will turn the roots green.
Horseradish can also be left in the ground and harvested in spring. Harvest horseradish yearly as the roots of old plants become tough and are poor quality.
Parsnips are normally harvested in late fall. The cool fall temperatures convert starch to sugar and give the parsnips their sweet, nut-like flavor.
Parsnips can also be left in the ground over winter and harvested in the spring. To prevent possible winter injury, cover the parsnips with several inches of straw. The straw can be held in place by covering with a tarp or fencing material and laying concrete blocks or bricks along the edges.
In spring, harvest the parsnips before growth begins. The quality of the crop declines rapidly once growth resumes. (There is no truth to the mistaken belief that parsnips are poisonous once growth begins in the spring.)
"Spring radishes" are the familiar, rapidly growing vegetables that mature in 3 to 4 weeks. This cool-season crop is planted in spring and late summer. Spring radishes are available in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Spring radishes can be harvested when the roots reach a diameter of 1/2 to 3/4 inch. The main harvest for many varieties normally occurs when the roots are 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roots larger than 2 inches in diameter are often pithy and unusable.
"Winter radishes" are slower growing (they typically mature in 50 to 60 days) and are much larger than spring types. They are best planted in late summer for a fall crop. Harvest winter radishes before the first hard freeze in the fall.
Rutabagas can be harvested when the roots reach 2 to 3 inches in diameter. However, the crop is normally harvested when the roots are 4 to 5 inches in diameter and the plants have been exposed to several light frosts. Light frosts sweeten the flavor of the roots. Prior to storage, trim off the foliage to within 1 inch of the crown. The foliage may also be harvested for greens.
Harvest the crop after several light freezes. The cool fall temperatures enhance the oyster-like flavor of the roots. Trim the foliage to 1/2 inch prior to storage.
Harvest turnips when the roots are approximately 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter. After harvesting, trim off the foliage 1 inch above the roots. The foliage may also be harvested for greens.
When harvesting root crops, dig and handle the roots carefully to avoid cuts and bruises. Clean the roots by gently rubbing off any soil by hand.
Root crops require cool, moist (32 to 40 F and 90 to 95% relative humidity) storage conditions. Small quantities can be placed in perforated plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator. Larger quantities may be stored in an outdoor cellar or basement storage room.
This article originally appeared in the June 29, 2001 issue, pp. 81-82.