Root Crops for Fall Harvest
Carrots, Beets, Turnips, Radishes, Rutabagas
by: Aidan Feeney
Plants take months to grow and it is our job as gardeners to plan ahead and forecast the changes that will take place in the coming months. This lesson is harsh and ongoing, and it is
the reason that the best gardeners we know are all old. Old-timers have had more seasons to mess things up and make adjustments to their plans. That is the basis for all learning.
You might ask how this relates to summer gardening. It means that if you’re still thinking about tomatoes and cucumbers while you’re harvesting them, you are already late in planning for your fall crops. By the time you read this article, in August, you should immediately prep beds and plant your fall crops.
In fact, if you wait that long, you’re already on the late side. This is particularly true for slow-growing plants that need to be started in the greenhouse, like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. That being said, you still have time to plant your fall root crops, all of which are sown directly into the soil, so you don’t need to bother with growing transplants.
Late-summer-sown, fall-grown, early-winter-harvested carrots are one of the tastiest vegetables you can grow. Carrots thrive in cooler fall weather, and if you wait to harvest them until after the first frost, they will develop a sweetness unlike any grocery-store produce you have ever tasted.
As far as which carrot type to grow, I always opt for a Nantes type. These are classic-looking orange carrots, normally with a somewhat blunt tip. They are fast-growing for a carrot and exceptionally sweet. My favorite variety for a fall crop is called Romance, available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Carrots should be planted in the most weed-free space you have in your garden. Everyone’s context is different, but whether you grow in raised beds or directly in the ground, carrots take about two weeks to germinate and if there is a lot of weed pressure/competition, you will likely fail in getting a nice stand of carrots established. The soil should be forked loose before planting, allowing the carrots to grow deeply, unimpeded by hardpan.
To plant carrots, mark rows in the soil eight inches or so apart. Drop the carrot seeds in the row, 12-18 seeds per foot, and lightly cover them with a quarter-inch of soil or so. Keep the soil damp until germination, and water the carrots regularly to get steady and uniform growth. If more than 16 carrots germinate in 12 inches of row space, thin them out to ensure they will grow nicely.
Other than slow germination and competition from weeds, carrots are a pretty straight-forward and easy crop to grow. They do not require much fertility, they don’t have many pests in our climate and disease is rarely an issue. Harvesting carrots is a lot of fun. There is something about pulling unseen roots out of the ground that is really satisfying.
Don’t let those childhood memories of eating nasty canned beets fool you. When harvested fresh, beets are a delicious vegetable and they are relatively easy to grow. Similar to carrots, but with a slightly faster germination time, beets should be direct-sown in marked rows 1012 inches apart. They will likely need to be thinned out for optimal spacing. This will result in nice, round beets and will be worth the extra effort.
Like carrots, there are few diseases and pests that affect beets. There is a chance you might get leaf miners, in which case you might have to cover your plants with row covers in the future. I have not had them on my beets on Nantucket yet. I almost always get some Cercospora leaf spot on my beets. This is an airborne fungal disease that creates brown spots and holes on the beet leaves. In general, it doesn’t affect the crop except in an aesthetic way. I find planting in a compost-rich soil and making sure there is good air flow between plants is the best way to prevent this disease.
Turnips are a fast-growing, easy-to-germinate and easy-toweed crop. There are many varieties available, ranging from all-white or red salad turnips to the classic purple-top cooking and storage varieties.
Salad turnips are sweet, tender and juicy, and as the name implies, they are most often eaten raw. The classic purple-top turnips will grow to a larger size and they will store after harvest for some time if you cut the tops off. These varieties are normally cooked to make them more tender and to bring out their sweetness. Sow your turnips in rows six to 10 inches apart and one to four inches apart in each row, depending on the desired size and variety you are growing.
The biggest challenge in growing turnips is managing the pests. A lot of bugs want a piece of these guys. Flea beetles and root maggots will most likely find your turnips and ruin them if you do nothing to prevent them. For this reason, I recommend placing row covers/insect netting over your turnips from the time you seed them until the time you harvest them. It is fine to remove the row cover while weeding or harvesting, but always place it back so the vegetables do not become infested.
Rutabagas are a very similar crop to grow, although they require wider spacing in and between rows.
As fall approaches and the shadows grow longer, all the plant life around us slows down. Your crops will not grow with the same intensity that they did in JuneAugust. As such, you need to plan ahead and adjust your planting schedule to make sure your crops reach harvest. Enjoy the rest of summer, and don’t forget to plant your fall root crops.
Aidan Feeney is the owner of Fog Town Farm on Nantucket and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.