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Top 5 Root Vegetables for Winter Growing

Updated on August 13, 2014

Summer vegetables are plentiful and easy to grow in most climates. But when the days get cooler and shorter, my thoughts turn to root vegetables. They are easy to grow and can stay in the ground until I need them. What better way to use your winter garden than to prepare for winter roasts, soups or warm spring salads by planting some or all of these great root vegetables.

A pan of roasted vegetables is a pan full of nutritional comfort food to get you through those long cold winter days.
A pan of roasted vegetables is a pan full of nutritional comfort food to get you through those long cold winter days.

Potatoes

Baked, steamed, mashed, fried - the humble spud does it all! If potatoes are a staple food in your household during winter for their warmth, energy and comfort value, then growing your own is a must. Potatoes originated in Peru and in the 16th century the Irish adopted them as their own. The potato was brought to Australia with the convicts who worked on potato farms for their liberty. Now grown throughout the world, there are many varieties of potato used in all manner of different cuisines.

Potatoes need a soil which doesn't have too much clay in it and they prefer a lower pH (around 6) although I have never had any trouble growing them in the higher pH soils (around 7) of South Australia.

Plant them in trenches around 10-15cm deep and 30cm apart, and once their shoots start to push through the soil, mound up more soil and mulch around the shoots. New potato tubers form above the 'mother' potato seed so mounding up the soil will maximise your yield. They can be grown in small spaces if you just keep mounding up the soil and mulch. Grow them vertically if you need to, just keep them covered as the exposed potato will go green and is poisonous.

If you enjoy winter rains, then there is no need to water them, however potatoes need a frost free environment for 2-3 months so you will need to protect them from frost.

In around 12-20 weeks, the green tops will start to wither after flowering, and this is the time to start harvesting your crop. If you can't wait that long, you can gently dig around the base of the plant and extract one or two from the plant before it is finished, but be careful not to steal too many or the plant will lose vigour, There are many varieties to choose from and each has its own qualities and uses, so consider the way you want to eat them before you select the variety. Dutch Cream, for example are great for mashing, so if winter comfort food is your thing, then you may like to plant those.

When you harvest, make sure you get every last potato, no matter how small, or you will have potatoes coming up in the same spot for years which can invite disease and pests.

The potato is a great complement to any meal, from Irish stew to creamy potato gratin or dum aloo lakhnavi (fried potatoes stuffed with paneer). Why not try growing some this winter and discover the flavours of real potatoes for yourself.

Beetroot

Roasted, pickled, juiced or grated raw, beetroot provides important nutrients to your diet. With unique phytonutrients they are great antioxidants. As an added bonus their leaves can be tossed into a green salad to add a bit of red colour and variety to your mix.

Like a lot of other root vegetables, beetroot doesn’t like to be disturbed and I’ve always had more success planting seeds in situ than buying seedlings and transplanting them, so find a good organic seed retailer and buy twice as many as you think you need. If you’re a fan of beetroot you will love the taste of them home-grown.

Plant them in a good friable soil – avoid rocks, weeds and heavy clay soils. Place them in a spot which receives at least 6 hours sunlight even in winter. Space them around 10cm apart – if they are too close together they won’t have room to grow. If you want a succession of beetroot, you can plant them every few weeks. Last year I planted mine in the front garden amongst the ornamentals. I plant seeds when the moon is on the wane - between the full moon and the new moon. The biodynamic folks tell us that this time is ideal for planting root crops.

Keep the seeds moist until they shoot, otherwise, like me, you will have to wait until sufficient rain keeps them moist enough to get going. Once they start appearing, make sure you keep the weeds away from them as they don’t like the competition.

You will be able to see the top of the bulb poking through the soil once it really gets growing so you can assess when you want to harvest them, depending on how big you like them. Dig around the bulb a little before pulling them from the base of the stems to make sure they come away cleanly. Be careful not to damage the bulb as you do this. You can leave them in the soil well covered with mulch until you need them if you don’t get temperatures below 0ºC. You can also store beetroots layered in sand in wooden boxes in a frost-free, dry environment.

I can’t wait for mine to grow – I love them roasted on a cold wintery night tossed with river salt and rosemary, or grated into a fresh garden salad. When I need a health boost, I juice one with an apple, a couple of sticks of celery, a carrot and a knob of ginger.

Carrots

looking for a fine tilthy soil, which turns easily. If you don’t have this in your garden beds, try growing them in raised garden beds and introduce the type of soil carrots will like. Mixing the seeds with a bit of clean river sand will help distribute the tiny fine seeds in a more even way.

Germination takes 10 to 12 days depending on soil temperature – faster germination occurs in the warmer months. Once they have germinated, thin them to 5 -10 cm apart. Make sure you keep the weeds under control – carrots don’t like the competition and will simply not put their roots down.

There are plenty of heritage varieties of carrot seeds available if you don’t like yours orange. Try purple, pink or yellow carrots on your plate for a bit of variety.

Harvest your carrots when the top of the carrot is 2-5cm in diameter. How long it takes from germination to harvest will depend on the planting times – those planted in summer will be quicker than those planted in cooler seasons. However, you don’t need to harvest them all at the same time. You can pick them as you need them and they will keep well in the soil for many months. Wash and keep carrots in the fridge in airtight bags to retain moisture.

If left in the ground, the plant will flower in its second year during spring and the seeds can be harvested after flowering.

Why not plant some and be inspired by a vegetable which has its own museum!

The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook

Parsnips

Nothing says roast vegetables to me like parsnips. To grow them you need a bit of patience as they take longer than most annual vegetables from germination until they are ready for you to eat. So if you are thinking about pairing some up with a warm winter roast, now is the time to get planting! The good news is that the sooner you get them in the ground, the sooner you will be harvesting them.

Sow the seeds where you want them to grow – they will be up within a few weeks and don’t like being moved, so put them where they can stay for at least 20 weeks, or approximately 5 months. Make sure your seeds are fresh when you buy them. If they didn’t come from last year’s parsnips then your germination rate will be very low, if at all. Sow seed at a depth approximately three times the diameter of the seed in a deep sandy loam soil. .Space the plants about 8 - 10 cm apart, or be prepared to thin them when they come up in about three weeks. Make sure the seeds are kept damp until they germinate, either with rain, mulch or some other cover to keep them moist.

It is best to plant them when soil temperatures are between 6°C and 21°C – during winter in a temperate climate. Parsnips can be grown in the same bed as silverbeet, peas, potatoes, beans, radishes and garlic and will get along nicely, however don’t plant them with carrots, celery or anything in the brassica family (e.g. cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, turnips) – they don’t seem to do very well if these are planted together.

The roots sit through the winter, gradually improving in sweetness and flavour as the starch contained is turned to sugars by cold weather and frost. Not many vegetables improve with the onslaught of inclement weather, but parsnips love it and will reward you for your faith in their ability to get through winter.

If you get frost in your area, the best time to harvest them is in around 17-20 weeks, just after a frost as soon as the leaves have died back. If you don’t get frost, then wait for a cool morning with a heavy dew and pull them up then. They will keep in a cool dry place for several weeks – don’t leave them in the ground too long past die back or they will be woody and start to lose their flavour.

Once you have harvested them, you can bake them, fry them, roast them and serve with other roasted vegetables, sprinkled with sea salt and your favourite herbs to enhance your favourite meal, or turn them into a lovely simple soup. Packed full of Vitamin C, antioxidants, fibre and anti-inflammatory compounds, they will warm you up while providing you with much needed nutrition through winter and into spring.

Turnips

Grown for its bulbous root, the turnip has been cultivated as staple food during ancient Greek and Roman periods. Although, its top fresh greens which taste a bit like mustard greens, are rather more nutritious, several times richer in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than the root.

The best time to plant is late autumn for winter harvesting. Or early spring for early summer eating. Turnip seeds are small, round and hard. Sow them in a shallow row, made with a hoe and sprinkle the seeds very sparsely along the entire length. Cover with a thin layer of soil and water them in, if it’s not due to rain within the next day or so.

The seeds germinate rapidly and the seedlings will be up and moving in less than 7 days. Make sure they are not overcrowded, as they don’t like the competition and will produce more leaves than roots. Once they are up, thin them out and keep the weeds at bay by hand weeding regularly so they can’t take over.

Turnips can be grown with peas, beans, chives, spinach, carrots and chicory. Avoid growing them in the same bed as potatoes or tomatoes (the Solanacae family) as they won’t be happy there.

If you want a continuous supply you can sow them continuously every three to four weeks from September to March in the Southern Hemisphere, or March to September in the Northern Hemisphere.

Make sure you keep the water up to them for the entire growing period and they will come on in leaps and bounds. Within 8 – 9 weeks they should be ready to harvest. Add them to a vegetable soup for thickness and body or roast them with a load of other root vegetables and serve them with your favourite meat.

Full of anti-oxidants, minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber, turnips are low in calories and high in B6 and C vitamins. A welcome addition to soups and slow cooked stews and quick to produce if you are impatient!

Served up with sea salt and a sprinkle of rosemary, root vegetables are full of anti oxidants, vitamins and fibre.
Served up with sea salt and a sprinkle of rosemary, root vegetables are full of anti oxidants, vitamins and fibre.

All you need to know about getting started with your food garden

Why not find a spot in your garden for one or more of these root vegetables and give them a go. You may well be surprised at just how productive your winter vegetable plot can be.

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