Root crops come in all shapes, sizes and colours these days. Helen Billiald has some delicious suggestions to grow for the table
When was the last time you tried a new root crop? We seem happy to play around with novel Oriental leaves, unusual fruit and herbs, but strangely reticent to give different subterranean crops a go. But with all the new choices available, now’s the perfect time to broaden your gardening horizons and root out some of the following.
Turnips don’t have a glamorous reputation but turnip hybrid ‘Tokyo Cross’ has been wooing chefs and gardeners canny enough to try it. You harvest the sweet white roots when they’re golf-ball sized. They’re delicious raw (yes really) and great in stir-fries, salads or soups. Sow from April to September and they’ll be ready in as little as 35 days. They like a fertile soil with steady access to moisture.
Similar in name but different in taste is turnip-rooted parsley, also known as Hamburg parsley. The flavour is tricky to describe; a cross between parsnip, parsley, celeriac and carrot, while the leaves are like a sturdy flat-leaf parsley. The roots aren’t as big as parsnips but I find them easier to germinate and they sit quietly into the winter waiting to be used. Sow from March to May and you can harvest from September onwards, they’re particularly good roasted.
Salsify is one of those roots I return to every few years because I’m keen for another hit of its delicate and appealing but rather strange flavour. Beautiful in creamy gratins it’s lovely roasted too. The roots are long and slim (winkling them out of the ground can be tricky) and they discolour once peeled, so pop them in water and lemon juice if you want to stop them going brown. They’re sometimes called oyster plant but I’ve never detected that flavour; I’d put them closer to globe artichoke. Sow in spring into deep, well-drained soil and harvest from October. They keep well over winter in the ground so harvest only as needed.
Coloured carrots are nothing new, but some of the differently shaded cultivars provoke intense debate over differences in flavour. Try ‘Night Bird’ for long purple-black roots with an intense colour that goes to the core. Or, go for an extra sweet root with the yellow ‘Jaune Obtuse de Doubs’ or the super sweet cream ‘Creampak’ F1. Sow carrots from April to June into a deep, free-draining soil and cover with fine mesh to prevent carrot fly.
A swollen stem rather than a root, kohl rabi is nonetheless often lumped into root veg territory. Actually it’s a brassica and remains woefully undervalued in this country. The aim is to grow it fast in lovely rich soil and harvest when young. I use it grated into coleslaw for a sweet, mild cabbage-cum-broccoli taste. Sow direct from March to July and watch out for slugs and snails who love the seedlings. Try ‘Azure Star’.
An overlooked root that I’m rather fond of is horseradish. A good roast seems incomplete without its pungent hit. The plants are thugs so you need to site them carefully. They like damp ground and often seem to end up hidden at the end of a garden near a compost heap. Plant the thongs (bare roots) in March or April, potting them up first if the weather is frightful. Harvest once the weather cools in autumn and winter. Digging up plants (as best you can) and replanting healthy roots will stop it spreading too far and keep the plant youthful.
Finally, for an easy, unusual and incredibly bountiful harvest in a fertile sunny site, make this the year you try yacon . Its beautiful late summer and autumn foliage looks pitch perfect in a tropical border. Once the leaves are knocked back by frost (like a dahlia), dig up the tubers. You’ll find two types: enormous baking-potato sized tubers to eat, and little knobbly growing-tip tubers, nearer the surface, that you can store in a frost-free shed over winter. I put mine in barely damp potting compost, then bring them back into growth in a greenhouse container the following spring and plant out after all risk of frost. The tubers are a sweet, crunchy delight, like a cross between water chestnuts and pear that I use in salads and stir-fries.
Helen’s rooty picks
Turnip ‘Tokyo Cross’ £1.79 for 400 seeds Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk
Hamburg parsley £1.49 for 1000 seeds DT Browns 0333 003 0869; www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk
Salsify ‘Mammoth’ £1.49 for 120 seeds Unwins 0844 573 8400; www.unwins.co.uk
Carrot ‘Night Bird’ £3.49 for 200 seeds Suttons Seeds 0844 326 2200; www.suttons.co.uk
Carrot ‘Jaune Obtuse de Doubs’ £2.22 for 400 seeds Real Seeds 01239 821107; www.realseeds.co.uk
Carrot ‘Creampak’ F1 £2.49 for 400 seeds Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk
Kohl rabi ‘Azure Star’ £1.99 for 100 seeds Marshalls Seeds; 0844 557 6700 www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Horseradish £9.99 for 5 thongs Marshalls Seeds 0844 557 6700; www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Purple Skinned yacon £9.99 for 6 super plugs Suttons Seeds 0844 326 2200; www.suttons.co.uk
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