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Plant root vegetables now for easy spring crop

Judy Barrett / Special to the American-Statesman
You can buy farm-grown leeks from places like Johnson's Backyard Garden or grow your own. [DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN]

Do you think of root crops as boring, old-fashioned and not very trendy? Well, maybe they don’t deserve their shabby reputation and are becoming more popular among home gardeners and picky eaters.

Root vegetables are among the most economical, nutritious, easy to grow, and long-lasting plants you can put in your garden. All of them can be grown from seed, saving the price of costlier transplants. They also are adapted to our winter and early spring climate when not much else is growing in the garden.

At one time, Americans were crazy about turnips. In an 1840 seed catalog from Rochester, N.Y., there were dozens of varieties offered. Today, we find three or four. It’s too bad turnips have gone out of style. They are extremely rich in vitamin C and have beneficial minerals. When we eat tomatoes and iceberg lettuce in the winter, we’re missing out on nutrients our ancestors got from the goodies stored in their root cellars.

Carrots are vegetables that have been around for a long time and are packed with nutrition. The original carrots were white or yellow. Today we have those plus orange, the primary carrot color, violet, and more recently, maroon. Not only can you choose color, but you can also select shape. Carrots come in a variety of sizes — from small balls to long tapers and everything in between.

Beets are my personal favorite among the root crops. They are beautiful, tasty, and I like both the root and the leaves. The beet family, which includes chard and sugar beets, are all packed with nutrients, are versatile in the kitchen, and taste good. The ancient Greeks and Romans grew both red and white varieties of table beet as well as what we call Swiss chard. Golden beets are also a good choice with beautiful color, not as strong and runny as the red beet, and terrific flavor.

Leeks are members of the onion family, but they have a unique and subtle taste that many other allium lack. They are long, slender, mild and vigorous. Egyptians in 1550 B.C. cultivated leeks and buried them in the pyramids for consumption in the afterlife. In the 1800s in America, leeks were considered a gentleman’s food and were served like asparagus as a treat.

Two things all root crops have in common are that they are better if you grow them yourself than if you buy them at the store, and they require good soil of some depth in which to grow.

Because they grow underground, the soil has to be loose enough to let them expand and flourish. Before planting your root crops, dig the bed thoroughly and remove as many rocks as you can. Add a good measure of compost because they are all fairly heavy feeders, and let the bed rest a while before planting. All of these crops are tough enough to withstand light frosts, so right now is a good time to get the seeds in the ground so the plants can mature before the weather gets really hot.

Plant leeks in trenches to allow the long bulb to develop and be blanched by the addition of more soil as it grows. Turnips and beets can be thinned and the greens eaten in delightful early spring salads or cooked quickly and seasoned with salt, pepper and butter.

Space all your seedlings so they have room to grow and make sure they have enough water to keep them growing steadily.

All these crops prefer cool weather. In areas like ours, where the soil doesn’t freeze, they can stay in the garden until you are ready to eat them.

Regular spraying (leaf feeding) with a blend of seaweed and fish emulsion keeps your plants healthy and growing quickly. Adding more compost as top dressing never hurts. Too much nitrogen fertilizer will discourage root growth, so stay away from that.

Interplant your roots with each other to confuse the bugs. They are compatible with each other and the leek scent is a good pest deterrent. It you have little caterpillars eating holes in the leaves, sprinkle on dry Bt (bacillus thuringiensis). This won’t hurt you, but wash the leaves thoroughly before eating. It will drive away the inchworms and their relatives. It won’t, however, hurt earthworms.

Each of these vegetables is delicious on its own as a side dish, but they are also essential ingredients in many wonderful soups, casseroles and other tasty treats. Once you learn the joys of root crops, you’ll wonder how you ever had a garden without them.

These are just a sampling of the delicious foods that grow primarily underground —potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, sweet potatoes, radishes, kohlrabi and Jerusalem artichokes to name a few more. You can continue planting root crops through April and again in the fall. They are gift that keeps on giving!

An easy way to dye eggs for the spring table is by combining them with beets.

Pickled Eggs and Beets

6 cups sliced, cooked beets

12 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

2 cups water

1½ cups vinegar

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

10 whole cloves

4 whole allspice

Place the beets and eggs in a large glass or ceramic jar or bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients and cook over low heat until everything is combined and smells really good. Pour over the beets and eggs and refrigerate for at least one day before serving. The eggs will turn a beautiful beet red and everything will taste delicious. To obtain a different look, don’t peel the eggs, just crack them. Store in the fridge for two days and the resulting eggs will have a marbled look. You can also make interesting deviled eggs with these colorful eggs.