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Gardening with Jack: Root Crops

Root crops are a valuable addition to the vegetable garden. Beets and sweet potatoes are staples in Bahamian gardens but there are many other root crops that deserve attention.

Beets can be yellow or red but red is favoured locally. The seeds are contained in knobby capsules that make sowing and spacing very easy. They can be grown in rows or in blocks spaced 3 to 4 inches apart and usually take close to three months to harvest.

The standard variety of beet is Detroit Red. It is easy to grow and gives the reward of tasty greens as well as the swollen root. It is best to harvest beets just short of maturity. If the roots stay in the ground too long they will become corky. For this reason it is a good idea to sow the number of plants you can deal with at one time, then two weeks or so later sow another crop. Once pulled from the ground and trimmed of greenery your beets will last for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Beets can be boiled or baked. Baking intensifies the sweetness of the flesh. The sweetness can become sweet and sour if you add vinegar to the cooked beets. In Eastern Europe the preference is for sour cream as an additive.

There are four main types of carrot: Nantes, Chantenay, Danvers and Imperator. The most popular is Chantenay, a classic carrot shape. Nantes is more cylindrical and is known for its distinct flavour. Danvers had broad shoulders and is grown in places where the soil is heavy or rocky. Imperator is by far the largest and can grow to 18 inches but finding that depth of soil in The Bahamas is a problem.

When sown in blocks the spacing between carrots is two inches, three for Danvers. Carrots like rich soil but the presence of active compost can cause side roots to develop. Old compost that has been in the soil for months is fine but areas with any recent applications should be avoided.

The fastest growing root crop is radish. Small ones go from seed to table in a month. The current craze for Korean kimchi has led to interest in daikon, a long white radish that is big but easy to grow. Turnips are little used in The Bahamas but radishes when cooked lose their peppery flavour and taste like turnips.

Sweet potatoes love sandy soil and also need fertilizer that is very low in nitrogen in order to promote root growth rather than leafiness. The most popular sweet potato is boniato, white and large, but there are many other varieties available with yellow or white flesh.

Sweet potatoes are grown from slips by allowing sprouts to grow from the narrow end of mature potatoes. When these sprouts become slips over 12 inches in length that have a brown bark they can be cut and planted at a steep angle in the soil. The foliage provides a fine ground cover and selecting sweet potatoes by digging into the soil with your fingers is an art.

Irish potatoes are best started in January and we will deal with them then.

There are a number of what are known as native crops that include eddoes, yams, cassava and malanga. Most of these demand lots of water and are grown near ponds but malanga – a smallish hairy tuber with rich sticky flesh – does not need damp conditions. Plant a single tuber and harvest a year later. Large tubers such as cassava should be planted as 2-inch cut sections and sown about 2-inches deep.

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