Avoid the guilty feeling of an empty garden bed by planting root crops.
Whether your garden has achieved timely crop succession, or the hustle and bustle of the growing season has led to an empty plot, there is always an opportunity to sow a few seeds in the vegetable garden. Early August planting provides a bountiful harvest for fall.
For Midwest growing conditions...
Select cultivars suitable for summer sowing with a low ‘days to maturity’ (the window of time needed to go from planting to harvest) for that crop. Less time to maturity is important because the intensity and length of daylight grows shorter every day, beginning in late June. Aim to plant root crops by the second week of August for a successful harvest in the fall.
For greatest success, select cultivars with a days to maturity less than 70 days:
‘Nantes’, ‘Danvers’, or ‘Bolero’
These cultivars offer excellent flavor and a crunchy texture, even when stored.
‘Detroit Dark Red’, ‘Boro’, or ‘Chioggia’
All are 55-60 days to maturity; all have excellent storage potential and fresh green quality; all have high levels of sweetness.
‘Purple Top White Globe’, ‘Tokyo Cross’ or ‘Hakurei’
Store short term in the fridge, grow 'Purple Top White Globe' and 'Tokyo Cross' for the root.
Prepare the soil for root crops
- Clear weeds or garden debris which interferes with seed germination and seedling development
- Add a layer of compost on the site to boost soil nutrients
- Loosen the soil 8-10 inches deep, using a garden fork or a tiller
Compost will incorporate into the soil as it is loosened. A weed-free compost on the soil surface can double as a mulch, reducing weed germination and maintaining soil moisture. Loosening the soil breaks up the hard crust of summer soil and improves drainage; loose soil supports high quality root development which is necessary for storing a root crop.
Plant and thin seedlings
Sow seeds directly into prepared soil; follow seed pack recommendations for seed spacing and planting depth. Use of pelletized seed for carrot seeding can reduce the need for thinning, but pelletized seed packets are more costly. Cover with ½ inch of soil and water daily until seedlings emerge. Maintain even soil moisture until plants are growing strongly. Do not transplant root crops.
Once seedlings are a few inches tall, thin them according to seed packet instructions. Thinning prevents crowding which allows optimum space for development and increases airflow. Thinning also leads to a gardener’s dream, hearty-sized root crops.
Maintain cool, moist soil conditions
Ensure soil moisture by watering every few days (or more), especially during hot summer periods with no rain. After plants are growing strongly, mulch with straw or shredded leaves to retain soil moisture and reduce frequency of watering.
Weed all season
Keep your garden weed free for the healthiest crop development; weed weekly with a hand hoe. Weeds wreak havoc on crop development, causing roots to be small, deformed, and underdeveloped. Weed the root storage crops once or more per week. Hand weed near root crops to avoid uprooting them.
Harvest root crops
For harvest, keep record when seedlings sprout and reference the ‘Days to Maturity’ to approximate when root crops are ready to harvest. As the harvest window approaches, feel free to sample the harvest – enjoy the flavor and evaluate the size. Although seed packets list the cultivar’s mature size for a crop grown under ideal conditions, the average measurements for each crop are 2 inches for carrots; 2 – 3 inches for turnips; and 3 – 4 inches for beets.
To harvest, loosen the soil with a garden fork or spade, then gently lift roots out of the ground – be careful not to damage the root, damaged roots cannot be stored. To avoid a kitchen mess, gently remove excess soil outside.
Store root crops
For temporary storage, wash root crops and let dry. Do not discard green tops, all are edible: beet greens are best sauteed; turnip greens are best stewed; and carrot tops make great pesto – beet greens are the mostly consumed.
To store in the fridge, do not wash roots but remove greens, place in a clean canvas bag to retain humidity, and store near 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Turnips can only be stored for two weeks but greens can remain attached.
Use this article as a roadmap to fill garden spaces with nutritious, delicious late-season vegetables.
Consult your local Extension office with further questions on summer-planted root vegetables.
Photo Credit: Carrot harvest by Liz Repplinger, Illinois Extension
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Frillman is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A fourth-generation graduate from University of Illinois, Frillman has a B.A. with a double major of Political Science and Spanish and a M.S. in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers’ market-style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Oregon.
ABOUT THE EDITOR: Liz Repplinger is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Coordinator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A Bloomington-Normal native, Liz earned a B. A. in Animal Science and an M.S. in Animal Science from Illinois State University. She has enjoyed contributing to the multiple facets of Extension including previous support of the 4-H Youth Development Program as a program coordinator and current support of Unit and Statewide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives.