Digging in Root vegetables new frontier for local home gardeners

Root vegetables such as turnips grow easily in the Lowcountry. August is the best time to plant the seeds for a fall harvest.

Say “fresh, flavorful vegetables” and most gardeners’ thoughts will turn to those planted in spring. But don’t be so quick to discount those veggies harvested in the cool weather, especially root vegetables.

Beets, carrots, radishes, rutabagas and turnips are among those that can be grown as easily by home gardeners. They might never become the darlings that tomatoes and beans are to many, but experts say they have their fans.

The first few weeks in August are prime for Lowcountry gardeners to plant root vegetables, according to Clemson Cooperative Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center. For some, growing these vegetables will add a whole new dimension to their gardening experience.

“For every garden I work on, I try to talk somebody into radishes,” says Elizabeth Beak, a community agriculture consultant with the Charleston-based company Crop Up. They are the first thing to come up in the garden.”

Beak says growing root vegetables can be encouraging for first-time gardeners.

“It’s so fun to try. We have so many great varieties of carrots, so many fun types and shapes. There’s the Thumbelina, purple, white, yellow and there are mixes,” she says. “Beet varieties can be golden, dark red, candy-stripped and more.

“Usually with root vegetables, you start with seeds; they don’t like to be transplanted,” Beak says. “It’s possible to start them in the green house, but you are rarely ever going to find plants to grow them from.”

Root vegetables do not require any more space to grow than more familiar vegetables, says Beak. She suggests following the spacing recommendations found on each vegetable’s seed packet.

Germaine Jenkins, who develops edible urban landscapes, says root vegetables are easier to grow than many others.

“I tell that to people who have not gardened before,” says Jenkins, owner of Urban Veggucation and Lowcountry Local First’s 2011 Femivore of the Year.

“Everybody is trying to grow the sexy tomato or squash,” Jenkins says. “They are very work intensive. Growing root vegetables tends not to involve the same kind of drama. Root vegetables are more like a cheap date.”

Jenkins, who dispenses seeds and advice at Chicora Place Community Garden on second Saturdays, says root vegetables are perfect for teaching children that food does not originate in supermarkets.

Beak says companies that specialize in heirloom seeds include Botanical Interests, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

At Botanical Interests, gardeners still buy more carrot seeds, but are branching out and experimenting, says spokeswoman Michelle DePaepe.

“It’s not all about tomatoes and corn and beans anymore,” DePaepe says. “There are a lot of varieties available by seed that you are not going to find in a grocery store. Carrots used be seen in all different colors until the orange ones became the most popular. We sell a packet of mixed-colored carrot seeds. Each one does have a little bit of a different flavor.“

The most important thing to remember when growing root vegetables is to have soil that is sufficiently deep for the particular vegetable, DePaepe says.

There are other ground conditions to consider, too.

“You can’t plant beets in a tiny container or hard-packed clay,” DePaepe says. “You have to have soil that is healthy, but not necessarily tilled. I grow root vegetables like carrots and beets in a whiskey barrel. There really is not any other trick to it.”

“I am trying to be the one-man rutabaga renaissance,” says Ryan Schmitt, staff horticulturist at Botanical Interests, which is available at Whole Foods, independent garden centers and elsewhere.

Rutabagas can be used to make steak fries, or you can mash it or cook it in other ways.

Its flavor is not too pungent, so it can be augmented with garlic or hot peppers, Schmitt says.

South Carolina soil is warm in August, so the plants get a faster start, Schmitt says. As the days get shorter, the soil gets cooler and the vegetables start to produce more natural sugars.