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Root crops Essential steps to ensure eye-catching vegetables
BEETROOTS, carrots and many other root crops need little space, are speedy growers and can often be decorative. Take the Italian heritage beetroot Chioggia. The white rings traced through the deep pink flesh will always be a winner at the dinner parties that may one day be possible. And the pure white Japanese radish Mino Summer Cross, when set off by the bright red Cherry Belle, is equally appealing. I could go on, if space allowed, but do check out Chiltern Seeds for some eye-catching beauties.
On checking the overnight thermometer, I see last night’s temperature was -5C and the soil at root level was 4C. You shouldn’t sow until it’s at least 6-7C.
Thoroughly prepare the ground for roots, as tiny seedlings need cosseting and are vulnerable to marauding molluscs. The soil should be moderately fertile. Remove any stones that could impede swelling roots and thoroughly rake the small area of ground you’ll need.
You could reduce weed competition with the traditional “lazy bed” system. This entails leaving the bed for two or three weeks before sowing and then hoeing off the first flush of weeds. If slugs are a problem, apply a dose of Nemaslug, a biological control that’s perfectly safe for wildlife. Millions of microscopic nematodes enter the slugs and by disrupting their guts kill them before they start consuming your emerging seedlings.
Carrots also need protection against disfiguring rootfly. Although varieties such as Flyaway and Resistafly help a little, they are only partially successful and a barrier is essential. Either cover the rows with a fleece cloche, keeping well pegged down to the ground, or erect a fleece curtain 90cm tall round the crop. A
nuisance, I know, but there’s no escaping it, I’m afraid.
Apart from parsnips and larger carrot varieties, such as Nantes and the fetching deep red Chantenay Red Cored, most roots are speedy growers. Radishes will be ready in a month, and beetroot and turnips between seven and 12 weeks. So plan to sow a few at a time, successionally over several weeks, for a steady supply of tender young roots.
Don’t ruin your beautifully prepared ground by dancing all over it with tackety boots. Lay a plank next to the dreel [drill] to spread your weight more evenly. And since the dreels are 30cm apart, start at one side of the bed and work backwards towards the other side.
The general principle when sowing is: the smaller the seed the less it’s covered, and the larger it is, the deeper it goes. So prepare a shallow drill and water with a fine rose. Watering before, not after, sowing prevents the water driving seed more deeply into the ground than you want.
Sow most seed thinly along the dreel, cover and lightly tamp down with a rake. Space larger beetroot seed 3cm apart as each seed case contains a few seeds. I like to “station sow” parsnips. This entails sowing a small pinch of seeds every 15cm along the dreel and limits the area to be thinned.
Keep the bed moist, but not wet and you’ll see radishes and turnips in six to ten days, carrots in ten to 20 days, beetroot in a little over three weeks, but you may have to wait a month for parsnips.
Most roots, apart from little salad radishes and quick-growing ball-rooted carrots, should have a final 10cm spacing. Thin twice as the plants grow. When seedlings are large enough to handle, water the ground well and do an initial thinning, to about 1-2cm. For the second thinning, wait till the little plants are just big enough to eat.