Root Vegetables: Underground Culinary Treasures
Like many of my fellow gardeners, I enjoy digging in the dirt, feeling soil textures with my fingertips, and discovering earthworms wriggling around those dark places. Although some people might find this somewhat odd, most young children are eager to grab a stick and poke around in that brown stuff underfoot. Why the compelling interest? For kids, it’s fascination with unexpected critters and other mysteries waiting to be revealed. For me, it goes beyond that. My respect and appreciation for the earth beneath my feet relates to an awareness that good soil is the secret to success with most horticultural pursuits. That said, let’s explore some of the vegetables that grow at or below the soil’s surface.
What’s a Root Vegetable?
Vegetable is a general term that refers to any of the plant parts, such as flowers, stems, leaves, seeds, fruits, or roots, that humans or other animals consume. What we call a root crop is a special type of vegetable with an enlarged storage organ that develops from the root tissue of a plant. So, a root vegetable grows underground, and its starchy contents provide essential nutrients for the rest of the plant that grows above ground. This article focuses on four root crops that are easily cultivated in our region (Zone 7a): beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. Perhaps potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams come to your mind as root crops, but technically, they are classified as tuber crops that grow horizontally beneath the surface of the soil. One major difference between tubers and root crops is that tubers can be sliced apart and subsequently replanted to develop a new plant. What about onions, garlic, and shallots that grow underground? Well, those are actually bulbs, although some people consider them a special type of root vegetable.
Why Bother with Root Crops?
First of all, root crops would never be winners in a beauty contest. When you spot them in the produce section of a grocery store, these lumpy, slightly dirty, misshapen specimens look a bit like ugly ducklings that no one really wants. To make matters worse, because root vegetables inhabit the damp, gloomy underworld, they develop tough skins for protection and must be thoroughly cleaned and peeled before being eaten. On top of that, in order to soak up water and moisture below ground, these edible roots typically have hairy extensions that must be removed before they are cooked or consumed. And, if that’s not enough of an inconvenience, beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas are very dense and must be boiled, roasted, or sauteed for quite a while before they soften up enough for your dinner plate. Oops, that sounds like a negative marketing pitch.
Before you cast off these bumpy underground edibles, consider their many favorable features. Root vegetables tend to be relatively inexpensive, and ounce for ounce, they are packed with nutritional benefits. As earth dwellers, root crops absorb plenty of minerals and nutrients directly from the soil around them. Unlike many other colorful, fresh vegetables that have to be consumed fairly quickly before they spoil, beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas can be stored for weeks or months, if given the right conditions (a cool place is best). Although taste preferences vary from person to person, most would agree that root veggies are excellent options that can be prepared in various ways to add tantalizing flavors to any meal. Finally, root vegetables are generally low in calories, cholesterol, and fat, but notably high in dietary fiber. What a great combination! Here’s more about the nutritional value of these root vegetables.
Be Heart Healthy with Beets
Known as Beta vulgaris in the scientific community, the common beet is a dark red, spherical taproot. Other cultivars of this vegetable are available (e.g., golden beets), but their nutritional value will differ. Red beets contain betaine, an antioxidant pigment that provides important cardiovascular benefits. They are a rich source of folates, manganese, iron, and B vitamins, as well as nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body to help relax and dilate blood vessels. This support for better circulation can lead to lower blood pressure. The potassium found in beets works to help flush out extra sodium from the bloodstream. Some research suggests that beet consumption has general anti-aging effects, such as improved brain function, physical performance, and endurance. Other studies show that beetroot extract can even reduce the growth of cancerous cells. Not to be forgotten are the beet greens that grow above the soil, which are well-known for even greater nutritional benefits. No wonder beets are listed as a “superfood.”
Cancer Protection from Parsnips
The scientific name for parsnips is Pastinaca sativa. A parsnip, which is closely related to carrots and parsley, has a long, slender, dense, cream-colored root. Parsnips are rich in vitamin C, which helps resist infection, boosts immunity, and supports healthy connective tissue, teeth, and gums. This root vegetable provides a rich supply of B vitamins, plus vitamins K and E. The antioxidant compounds in parsnips fight inflammation, in addition to offering some resistance to liver disease, colon cancer, and certain types of leukemia. Compared to other vegetables, parsnips boast the highest potassium content, which is a factor in strong bones and muscles. The generally high mineral content of parsnips, including calcium, copper, iron, manganese, selenium, and phosphorous, offers an impressive set of health benefits.
Stay Fit and Trim with Turnips
Turnips, also referred to as Brassica rapa, are thick, round roots with purplish-white coloring on the outside and tough white flesh inside. An excellent source of vitamin C, turnips help fight respiratory infections, such as the common cold, as well as harmful free radicals that play a role in the development of cancer. As a high-fiber cruciferous vegetable, consumption of turnips can aid in digestion and prevent constipation. As a result, they may contribute to reduced obesity rates and lower incidence of stomach and colorectal cancer. Turnips also contain protein and phytonutrients, which are associated with long-term benefits for human health. In addition, turnip greens are rich in vitamin A, B-complex, and C, along with calcium, copper, iron, potassium, and manganese, offering a more potent nutritious punch than the turnip root.
Rutabagas, Low-Calorie Powerhouses
Rutabagas are a hybrid of wild cabbage and turnips. First developed in Sweden, they are often called Swedish turnips, but the proper scientific name is Brassica napus, var.napobrassica. Rutabagas are similar in appearance to turnips, but bigger and slightly more elongated in shape. Light brown on the outside, their inner flesh is golden yellow, with a taste that’s noticeably sweeter than turnips. Rutabagas are proportionally richer in B-complex vitamins than turnips, but offer a similar high level of vitamin C. They have relatively high amounts of glucosinolates, known to reduce inflammation and decrease the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer (colorectal, prostate, breast). Rutabagas also contain phytonutrients, antioxidants that support eye health. Sufficient consumption may prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
Getting Started with Root Vegetables
Now that you know more about the nutritional value of root crops, I hope you’re inspired to try growing at least one of these vegetables. For success with cultivation, keep the following information in mind. You don’t need a large area, since root crops can be quite productive in a fairly small space. They thrive in full sun, so choose a spot with 6 – 8 hours of sunlight per day. Root crops require a soil pH of 6.0 – 6.8, so you’ll want to get your soil tested and find out how to amend the soil, if needed. If you provide a soil sample, the Virginia Tech Soil Testing Laboratory will conduct a comprehensive analysis and make recommendations for nutrient management (for a fee of $10 – $16). Visit their web site for instructions and required forms: https://www.soiltest.vt.edu/
Root vegetables prefer loose, well-drained soil with sufficient air penetration. For heavy soil (like typical Virginia clay), consider adding compost or other organic matter. Raised beds work well for root crops because this method reduces soil compaction, allowing the vegetables to grow downward more easily. Raised beds also enable better water management to prevent the soil from being too waterlogged or dried out. Classified as cool weather crops, root vegetables can be planted in early spring, up to 30 days before the last frost date for a summer harvest, or in late July or August for a fall harvest. They tolerate chilly temperatures and can be harvested close to the first frost date in the autumn.
If you choose to fertilize, two pounds of 10-20-10 per 100 square feet for parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas and 10-10-10 for beets can be broadcast onto the soil prior to planting. Moisten the soil to prepare it and then water it every other day until germination for a higher percentage of seeds that sprout. At planting time, read the spacing recommendations on seed packets carefully; root crops that are overcrowded may not develop well. Then, be patient, as root vegetables tend to have slow germination rates.
Cultural Practices and Potential Problems
Pull any weeds you notice around seedlings when they are small, or they may become entwined around the roots of developing vegetables, making it difficult to separate them from the crops. Don’t forget to thin out rows of new seedlings, or there will be too much competition for water and nutrients. If plants are too close to each other, root vegetables may fail to thrive or become misshapen. Spacing beets and rutabagas every 4 – 6 inches, and parsnips and turnips every 3 – 5 inches will work well. Consider eating the greens from the plants that you thin out. The leaves of beets and turnips are nutritious and tasty, but wait until the greens are 6 – 8 inches tall.
After seedlings emerge, lay mulch around them to control weeds and keep the soil moist, which will maximize crop yield. However, if the site remains too wet, vegetables can get root rot or decay. Be vigilant about hand weeding to allow the vegetables to thrive as they grow beneath the ground. These root crops have relatively few diseases, but they are subject to blight and downy mildew. Turnips and rutabagas may also get club root. A three or four-year rotation of your crops in the garden area will help to reduce these problems. Possible insect pests to watch for are root maggots on turnips and rutabagas, leaf miners on beets, and rust flies on parsnips.
Harvesting and Storing Root Crops
After all your hard work, be sure to harvest these vegetables at the appropriate time. Root crops left in the ground too long can get pithy and bitter. Beets are ready when they are 1 – 3 inches in diameter (45 – 80 days to maturity). Turnips are ready when 2 – 3 inches in diameter (30 – 60 days to maturity), and rutabagas are ready at 3 – 5 inches in size (80 – 100 days to maturity). Parsnips and rutabagas like chilly weather, which improves their taste. Harvest rutabagas after a couple frosts, but parsnips can remain in the ground throughout the winter, if you mulch them with straw (94 – 120 days to maturity).
After harvesting root vegetables, you can keep them for several weeks or months, as long as they are kept in a cool place (32 – 40 degrees F) with relatively high humidity. Remember to trim the tops off (within ½ inch of the root) before placing them into storage, but don’t wash the crops until you’re ready prepare them for a meal. Note that turnips and rutabagas give off a slight odor, so plan accordingly when choosing where to store them.
Enjoy the Produce
All your hard work raising these crops should lead to some culinary adventures for your mealtime enjoyment. Root vegetables are generally too hard to eat raw, but they can be steamed, boiled, roasted, grilled, or sauteed as a key ingredient in many delicious recipes. For steaming or boiling, peel and prepare beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas just as you would potatoes before mashing them. Roasting or grilling these vegetables will add to their zesty flavor. Slice or cut them up, drizzle with olive oil and your choice of spices, and roast on a baking pan in the oven or in a metal basket on the outdoor grill. You can also saute’ root crops that have been cut into small chunks, but allow sufficient time for them to soften up and then add your favorite spices.
Looking for recipes for your root crops? Check these out:
Enjoy this short video that reviews the benefits of roots crops and how to prepare them: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EjTnc-dL8U
If you haven’t tried growing or preparing root crops before, this might be a great time to dig into something new!