10 top tips for growing root vegetables

GROWING CARROTS, BEETS, RADISHES or other root vegetables can be more challenging than, say, growing a zucchini or pole bean, but these long-storing staples are worth mastering. What’s the secret to growing root crops, whether the most familiar kinds, or even a turnip or parsnip?

Daniel Yoder of Johnny's Selected Seeds1. Timing is everything: In general, says Daniel Yoder (above), a research product technician at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, root crops prefer to mature in cool weather. “Most of these crops grow and taste the best when planted in July or August for fall harvesting,” he says. “Plus, colors on the roots will develop more vibrantly in cool soils.”

Carefully choose your varieties for each season, sowing faster-maturing varieties for spring and slower-maturing varieties for summer plantings for fall harvest and storage.

2. Direct sow for success: Growing root vegetables can be especially challenging because they require direct seeding to grow strong, unhindered roots and some grow rather slowly from seeds, especially in cooler spring soils. Beets are an exception that can be transplanted, with care taken to get them planted at the right time. (Some farmers are experimenting with planting radishes, beets, and even carrots with the Paperpot Transplanter to give them a jump on the weeds.)

3. Don’t skimp on sunshine—select a full-sun location. Too much shade means your plants may struggle, and under-perform.

4. Don’t skimp on bed preparation, either. Loosen the soil, picking out rocks, says Dan, then firm the bed before sowing so that you’ll get good seed-to-soil contact.

“You don’t want to loosen it and just plant into a loose bed,” he says, “because that bed will settle a little bit, which will also distort the root growth a little bit and just set them back.” Many gardeners increase their success rate by growing their root crops in a raised bed, especially in areas with heavy soil.

5. Reduce potential weed pressure as you prep, to give your root vegetable seedlings the best chance, rather than forcing them to compete for space and resources. Solarizing or tarping the bed (how that works) is one organic tactic, or cleanly cultivating all weed seedlings for 2-3 weeks prior to planting. You may need to water once to get the weeds to grow.

6. Moisten the seedbed before sowing, then “provide low volume but frequent, even moisture through germination,” says Dan. “One big trick that a lot of people don’t think about is making sure you pre-irrigate your beds.” Some gardeners then cover the pre-moistened, sown row with row-cover fabric or even a piece of burlap or grass clippings to keep the moisture in while awaiting seedling emergence.

7. Spacing root vegetables is very important. “You don’t want to just put down a lot of seed because it’s quick and easy,” says Dan. “If you take a little extra time to put down closer to your appropriate spacing, it’ll save you way more time later on with the thinning process.” Some gardeners find pelleted seed (above) easier to space carefully.

8. For maximum yields, find varieties that tolerate crowding and give them more time to grow. “Some varieties of beets, radishes and carrots are genetically more tolerant to crowding than other varieties,” Dan explains. “‘Adelaide F1’ and ‘Yaya F1’ are examples of carrots that are known to be able to handle some crowding, for instance, but the closer the roots are together, the more slowly they will develop to a harvestable size, so be sure to give those time to grow.”

zeppohorz beets from Johnny's

9. Thinning may be necessary to achieve correct spacing, as hard as we may try when sowing to follow packet recommendations. Dan usually waits to thin until root crop seedlings are big enough that he can easily grab them with his hand.

“I think rutabagas and turnips, in particular, are a little pickier,” he says, “and I wouldn’t wait too long on them because they really seem like they need their space to size up early.” Radishes and beets (above is ‘Zeppo’ beet), however, can be thinned as early as the first true leaf—and so can carrots, but that may backfire a bit:

With carrots and parsnips, because they can be slow to germinate thinning extra-early may mean not all the seedlings have emerged yet, so Dan waits until they’re a little bit bigger—even like 2 or even 3 inches.

10. Don’t let root vegetables dry out when they’re starting to swell. Consistent watering is important, too, as with most crops, but pay extra-careful attention when the roots are developing.

AGAIN: Root vegetables may be a little harder to get established than that tomato transplant, says Dan, but so rewarding to learn to grow.

“I feel that growing carrots and parsnips well is a real milestone for growers of all sizes,” he says. “It’s like digging for treasures.”

(Photos of Daniel Yoder and ‘Yellowstone’ carrots at the top of the page and ‘Zeppo’ beets from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.)

more on root vegetables

  1. Julie says:

    Thanks for the tips. I will try the row cover and spacing seeds. I have had good luck with Scarlet Nantes and Danver but have never been able to get the red and purple varieties to come up. I am feeling blessed that I have a mushroom farm near by that I will get compost from this year.

  2. April Campbell says:

    I station sow my parsnips and beets to minimize thinning. I only used pelleted seed for my carrots unless it’s a unpelleted cultivar I really, really want. I cover my carrots and parsnips with shade cloth to keep the bed moist. Once germination takes place, I replace the shade with row cover. All my raised beds are drip irrigated.

  3. Sandi Krasowski says:

    What about soil? I was told the reason I can’t grow root vegetables in my garden is because my soil is not sandy loom. I don’t even know where to get that.

    1. Gene says:

      I can grow nice carrots in native soil that could be sold as modeling clay. I just amend it with compost from last years leaves. Initially, I would turn the soil in the fall and bury 6-8″ of leaves as I go. I have double spaded to increase the depth of my good soil and now every year add about a 5 gal bucket of compost per sq. yard; dig it in some and plant as described.
      Early crop of munching carrots through summer; late crop for fall soup. One or two rows are covered for the winter. This year, I pulled my last row in February. Carrots were good for lunch snacking and for two batches of Irish Vegetable Soup.
      I use Bolaro(?) carrots here in NE Ohio.

  4. Kari says:

    Can you explain why some beets get woody? I can see I need to increase my fertility and give them more sun. Too often they grow really slowly, are mostly greens, and the roots that do form are small and woody. Would that be less of a problem if they got more sun and fert and grew faster?

    Thanks for a great topic. These crops could be staples for growing food in short season areas, and other than carrots, they can be hard to find in stores in rural areas. Kari

  5. After struggling to grow carrots in beds, I have finally found success growing them in deep galvanized oval tubs. I sow the seeds, cover with a little sand and have less trouble with seeds being stolen away by ants or birds. Getting several tubs going, I can stagger for a longer harvest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.