Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Survival Gardening: Root Crops

Some vegetables are grown mainly for their underground parts, and they are collectively if somewhat vaguely known as ''root crops,'' since most of them are cultivated in roughly the same manner: beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and so on. Potatoes are also included below, since their cultivation is somewhat similar to that of the previously mentioned vegetables. Most root crops are "light feeders," not taking large amounts of nutrients out of the soil and hence not requiring very good soil at the time of planting. All of these crops, however, require that the land be well dug before planting.

CHENOPODIACEAE / Beets (Beta vulgaris)

Beets do well almost anywhere in North America; they will even thrive in the far north. They are highly nutritious: the roots are rich in potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and iron, and vitamins A, C, and niacin. The leaves are rich in iron and other minerals, as well as vitamins A and C. Good varieties include Early Wonder Tall Top, Detroit Dark Red, Long Season, Winter Keeper, and Cylindra Formanova.

Beets can be planted in either the spring or the fall; if you are growing any type that is meant for winter storage, put the seeds in the ground about 10 weeks before the first fall frost. A beet "seed" is actually a capsule containing about half a dozen seeds. Dig the soil deeply before planting beets (or any other "root" vegetable), and try not to compact the soil by walking on it too much. Plant the capsules ½ inch (1 cm) deep, 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart, with rows 1 foot (30 cm) apart.

Gradually thin the seedlings until they are 6 inches (15 cm) apart. Once the seedlings have started to grow, you shouldn't need to irrigate them; Early Wonder Tall Top is especially drought-resistant. Keep the area free of weeds, which should be removed by hand rather than with a hoe; beet roots are easily damaged.

Don't leave beets in the ground too late in the fall, because they're somewhat less tolerant of frost than the other "root" vegetables. Beets have their best flavor when the roots are about 2 or 3 inches (5-7.5 cm) wide, but for winter storage you should leave them in the ground as long as the temperature will allow. When you pull them up, cut off the tops about an inch above the root; too close, and you'll cause the roots to "bleed." The leaves can be boiled, or you can hang them to dry for later use in soups. The roots themselves should be put in a cold root cellar, packed in damp sawdust, moss, leaves, sand, or soil to retain moisture.

The plants you intend to use for seed should also be planted late in the season and pulled up in the fall. Cut the tops off and save them just as you would save them for eating. Plant them again in the spring, but well apart -- about 2 feet (60 cm) by 4 feet (120 cm). As the seeds develop, you might need to tie the plants to stakes, and you may also need to cover the heads with cheesecloth to keep birds off. When the plants mature, cut the plants off at ground level and hang them upside down until they are dry enough for you to strip off the seeds, which will then remain viable for about 3 or 4 years.

BRASSICACEAE / Turnips (Brassica rapa)

Turnips are not an ideal crop if you are trying to garden without irrigation. Nevertheless, they will provide you with a nice root crop in a short time, between 35 and 70 days after planting, depending on the variety: Purple Top and Golden Ball Yellow are good ones to try. Turnips like cold weather, so they can be planted early -- about a month before the last spring frost. Or you can plant them in midsummer, about two months before the first fall frost, and leave them in the ground through several light frosts before harvesting them. Plant them in the same manner as other brassicas. Because turnips are a "root" vegetable, however, the soil should be kept loose.

Turnips are not especially good for storing, but if you're lucky you may be able to keep them for months. When you dig them up, don't remove any of the dirt that clings to them. To keep them in a root cellar, cut off the tops and put the roots in a container with damp sand, moss, or sawdust, at close to freezing temperature. If they are allowed to dry out, they will rapidly shrivel, even more quickly than carrots.

Turnips, however, are easy to dry: just peel them, cut them into slices ½ inch thick and leave them to dry in the shade, turning them occasionally. If you want to cook them later, soak them in water overnight.

Because turnips don't mind the cold, in most areas seed can be produced by covering plants with a mulch and just leaving them through the winter so that they grow again and produce flowers and seeds the next year. When the pods start to turn yellow, cut the stalks, leave them to dry, and then beat and winnow them to get the seeds. Don't try to produce turnip seed if you are also trying to get seed from other forms of B. rapa, such as field mustard.

If you're living in a very cold climate, you may need to produce seed by bringing the roots in for the winter. Store them as explained above, then set them out in the ground early the next spring, with only the tops exposed.

BRASSICACEAE / Rutabagas (Brassica napus)

A rutabaga is a sort of big brother to a turnip, although they are different species. Rutabagas are slower to grow, but larger and more drought-resistant. Two good varieties are Laurentian and American Purple Top.

Rutabagas are even more of a northern crop than turnips. Because rutabagas prefer cold weather, they are usually grown as a fall crop. Sow the seed in the usual manner for brassicas, but about 3 months before the first fall frost. The young plants should be watered, but as they start growing they will need no irrigation.

Rutabagas do not need to be pulled up until they have been through a few frosty nights, after which they should be stored in damp sand, moss, or sawdust. Like turnips, they will shrivel quickly if allowed to dry out. Again like turnips, rutabagas can also be preserved by peeling, slicing, and drying.

Because of their resistance to cold, rutabagas do not need to be stored indoors to produce seed the following year. Just give them a good mulch of whatever materials are available, and they should be able to sprout again in the following spring.

UMBELLIFERAE / Carrots (Daucus carota)

Carrots can be grown almost anywhere, they are resistant to almost anything, they are nutritious, they produce abundantly, and they are easy to store for the winter.

Nearly any area in the United States and Canada is suitable for carrots, as long as the soil is not too shallow and there are not too many rocks. A region with cool, wet weather is best, but once they get going they can last through a long hot summer. Stay away from the types that are most popular nowadays: most people buy seeds for Nantes and other tender, juicy types, but these will fail you as soon as you stop pouring on the water. Instead, plant a more water-efficient type such as Danvers or Royal Chantenay.

Around the date of the last spring frost (or as much as a month earlier, if you like), sow your carrot seeds in loose, well-dug soil, ¼ inch (6 mm) deep, ½ inch (1 cm) apart, in rows 1 foot (30 cm) apart. Carrot seeds take 1 to 3 weeks to germinate, so be patient. As the plants grow, keep them thinned. When they've produced a few real leaves, thin them to 1 inch (2.5 cm). Thin them once or twice more, until the roots are an inch (2.5 cm) thick, and then give them a final thinning so that the plants are about 6 inches (15 cm) apart. If you want carrots to store for the winter, however, you should sow the seed about 100 days before the date of the first fall frost. You can water the seeds to get them sprouting if you like, but carrots really need little or no irrigation from sowing to harvest. Keep the area weeded, but try not to stand near the plants, because the soil should be kept loose if the roots are to develop properly.

Carrots are easily bruised, so pull them up by hand rather than with a spade or fork. The fall crop should be left in the ground until the first frost, although they are not easily damaged by cold weather.

There are not many diseases or insects that bother carrots. If you have trouble, it is more likely to be from various mammals, from rabbits to deer, that do some nibbling.

Storing carrots for the winter is not difficult, as long as they are kept from drying out. The process is practically the same as for beets. Snap off the tops and put a layer of carrots on the bottom of some sort of tub or barrel in your root cellar. (Don't wash the carrots before storage.) It's all right for the carrots to be touching. Add a layer of damp sand, soil, sawdust, moss, or leaves, add another layer of carrots, and so on. In this way the carrots should last the winter.

There are many variations on the way to produce seed. Be sure that there's little or no wild carrot (Queen Anne's lace) growing nearby, because wild and cultivated carrots will crossbreed. If you like, you can just leave your carrots in the ground over the winter, perhaps with a layer of mulch, and then allow them to go to seed the next summer; this method involves the least work, but it does not allow you to spot the plants that are producing inferior roots. A more precise technique is to pull the carrots up in the fall, after the first frost, and save only the best roots. (The others can be stored or eaten.) You then have further choices. If you're not worried about the winter, you can put the good roots back in the ground (again, 1 foot [30 cm] apart, in rows 4 feet [1.2m] apart) with only the tops exposed, and leave them till spring. Or you can store them as if for eating, and then set the good ones back in the ground the following spring. It all depends on the severity of the climate, how much risk you want to take, and how much work you want to do.

Whatever variation you use, you must let the plants grow through the next summer until the seed heads at the tops of the plants have turned brown. Pull up the plants with the roots and stack them to dry for 2 or 3 weeks, until the stalks are quite brittle. Then rub the heads to release the seeds, which will then stay viable for 1 to 3 years.

UMBELLIFERAE / Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa)

If you live in a northern climate and have deep sandy soil, parsnips are an excellent vegetable to consider. They are highly resistant to disease and insects. They keep well in storage. They are not bothered by cold weather; in fact, they need fairly cool weather to grow properly. Parsnips seem to have gone out of fashion, to judge from some of the more recent gardening books, but they are frequently mentioned in the older ones. A good variety is Improved Hollow Crown.

Parsnips have long roots, so they should be grown in loose, deeply dug soil; sand is better than clay, and sand that has had a good deal of compost dug into it is even better. Sow the seeds about a month before the last spring frost, with the same spacing as for carrots: ¼ inch (6 mm) deep, ½ inch (1 cm) apart, in rows 1 foot (30 cm) apart. Again, gradually thin them until they're about 6 inches (15 cm) apart.

However, parsnips take a long time to germinate: it will be anywhere between a week and a month before they are visible. During this time, you may lose track of where you sowed the seed, or you may have that line becoming covered with weeds. In any case, you can still use that land while waiting for the parsnips, by adding seeds of a faster growing vegetable that you can harvest before the parsnips are established.

It will take about 4 months before the roots are really full-sized, so be patient. You can eat a few before that length of time, but if you leave them to grow they can reach a length of 3 or 4 feet (1 m). They taste even better after a frost, you can dig them up during the winter (if the ground thaws temporarily), or they can even be left in the ground until the following spring. Don't pull up parsnips, however; always dig them up, or the roots will get broken. Larger roots have a woody core, but this can easily be separated from the rest of the root after boiling, at which point you can also slit the skin and peel it off.

Parsnips are stored in exactly the same manner as carrots, using some sort of material that will keep them moist through the winter, and the seed is saved like that of carrots. Unfortunately parsnip seed is viable for only about a year, or two years if you're lucky, so be sure to use it quickly.

CONVULVULACEAE / Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)

Sweet potatoes do best in sandy soil that is not too fertile; highly fertile soil will result in too many leaves and not enough tubers. The plants need about 100 days of warm weather, preferably 150, so they are really a southern crop. Certain types will grow even in Canada, however: Georgia Jet and Carter, for example, if you can avoid frost. Sweet potatoes yield almost as well as "Irish" potatoes, sometimes better, so they serve as a warm-climate equivalent.

Like "Irish" potatoes, sweet potatoes are grown from the previous year's tubers. You need to start about 12 weeks before the last spring frost, or in other words about the middle of winter. The tubers should be half-buried in sandy soil, in a warm location -- in the north, you'll need to keep them in a large pot indoors. Keep the soil moist. Three months later, the triangular leaves will start to appear, and from then on the vines should grow at a reasonable rate. Let them keep growing until you can be almost certain that there will be no more frosty nights. That means late spring or early summer. Then break the vines off from the parent tuber and plant them in the garden, several inches deep and about 2 feet (60 cm) apart in all directions. Water them until they start to grow new leaves. After that, they will put new roots down occasionally, so weeding is not very practical.

In the north, the biggest problem you'll face is cold weather. In the south, a few fungal diseases can affect your harvest. Black rot, for example, causes dark circular depressions on the tubers. (Don't confuse black rot with scurf, which produces harmless dark spots.) To avoid such diseases, choose resistant varieties and practice proper crop rotation.

Leave the plants until they start wilting from the cold weather of fall. On a dry, sunny day, dig up the tubers and leave them in the sun for a few hours. In the south, you could leave them outside for the next two weeks to continue curing. Further north, you have to bring them inside and keep them in the warmest room in the house. At this stage, humidity is important, so you may need to cover them with a damp towel. After that period of curing, they should be packed in sawdust, newspaper, or hay, not touching each other, at a fairly cool temperature but well above freezing, with good ventilation.

Sweet potatoes can also be preserved by drying them. Peel off the skin, cut the tubers into ½-inch (1 cm) slices, and leave them in the sun. Or you can boil them first, so that the skin comes off more easily.

SOLANACEAE / Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum)

In terms of calories, potatoes can produce more food per unit of land than any other crop that is cultivated in the United States or Canada. At least to that extent, they may be a useful "survival food," except in southern regions, where they are replaced by sweet potatoes, a completely unrelated plant. Potatoes do well only if they have a long period of cool weather, either in spring or fall. Red Pontiac is early, Russett Burbank (also called Netted Gem or Idaho Baker) is excellent for storage but will not grow if overcrowded, Kennebec is blight-resistant, Green Mountain and Katahdin are also good as late crops, but there are many other good varieties.

There are mixed opinions about whether you can just buy a bag of potatoes from a supermarket and plant them. I've done it several times and had no problems. But you may find that such potatoes carry diseases, or that they've been treated so they won't sprout. You'd do better to go to a store or vegetable market that has so-called "seed potatoes" -- ordinary potatoes, but disease-free, sold to be planted rather than eaten.

Leave the potatoes until their eyes develop sprouts, but don't let them get more than a fraction of an inch long, or they'll break off as you put the potatoes in the ground. Leave the potatoes whole: there's not much to be gained by cutting them in pieces. Put each potato into a 6-inch (15 cm) hole and cover it. The potatoes should be 12 inches (30 cm) apart in the row, and the rows should be 3 feet (1 m) apart. Like grains and beans, potatoes are very much suited to dry farming; there's no need to irrigate your potato patch. Keep the plants weeded, and use a hoe to pull soil up around the base of the plants from time to time, so that they are encouraged to produce new tubers; most of the potatoes will be less than 6 inches (15 cm) below the surface, and they need to be kept covered.

Although potatoes are a possible "survival food," the one catch is that they're subject to a number of pests and diseases. The worst insect is the Colorado potato beetle, a creature with black and orange stripes. Pick them off when you see them, and drop them into a jar of soapy water. Also keep an eye out for the eggs, which are orange and can be seen on the underside of leaves; pick off these leaves and destroy them. Wire worms and June beetle larvae can also cause problems. Most insect pests can be controlled by proper crop rotation.

A number of fungal diseases attack potatoes, particularly in warm damp weather. The most famous is the one called late blight, which caused the dreadful famine in nineteenth-century Ireland. To avoid such problems, do not grow plants too closely together, and do not touch wet plants. Diseased plants should always be burned, not thrown on a compost heap.

Soil that is overly alkaline is said to cause scab, a very common disease indicated by brown or black spots over the skin of the potatoes. The theory is somewhat doubtful, however, and in any case you can't keep one part of your garden more acidic than another if you're rotating crops. Scab is harmless, in any case, and the edibility of the potatoes is not affected in any way.

Potatoes are nearly ready to harvest when the foliage starts to wither and die. Don't dig up the potatoes immediately, however; let them stay in the ground for another week or so, unless there's a serious danger of frost. Then use a fork to get the potatoes out of the ground, but be gentle with them, because all damaged potatoes have to be eaten right away. Bring them inside and let them dry for another week or so, letting the skins toughen to protect against disease.

When your potatoes are ready for storage, you can keep them in a pit or in a root cellar. A potato pit is a hole dug in the ground about 2 feet (60 cm) below the frost line, if you can estimate such a thing. Put the potatoes in the pit and cover them with a layer of hay and a layer of dirt, and with any luck they'll survive the winter. It is safer to put them in a real root cellar, dark, cool (but not freezing), and well-ventilated. Contrary to popular belief, there is no problem with keeping potatoes and apples in the same root cellar, as long as the ventilation is adequate -- and, in any case, most people with root cellars have little choice. What is most important is that the potatoes not be allowed to freeze, because frozen potatoes immediately become rotten and inedible. If you store them properly, on the other hand, they should last through the winter and even provide you with enough to start the next year's crop.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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