by William and Mary Weaver
Root vegetables, many of which can still be planted in July for fall and late fall harvest, are becoming more popular as new varieties, new uses and a growing consumer interest in healthy food boost demand.
Small red beets, for example, are being marketed cooked and brined in small snack packs with crackers and cheese, making a great value added product. Beet greens are growing in popularity as a mild salad green. Chefs and food service are leading the way with golden beets, which will not bleed into salads and soups. “If you’re selling bunches of mixed colored beets, try peeling them,” advised Jan van der Heide, Northeast Manager of Bejo Seeds. “Peeling really makes the colors pop!”
Colored carrots, high in antioxidants, are becoming more widely used to extend pricey fruit juices: Purple carrot juice, high in anthocyanins, mixed with blueberry juice; orange or yellow carrot juice, high in lutein and carotene, mixed with orange juice; white carrot juice, high in fiber, mixed with white grape juice. “Nobody will fault you for the mixing, because these juice blends taste so good!” commented van der Heide, who spent much of his professional career with Cornell’s Extension program.
Newer hybrid parsnip varieties are more filled out to the tip, resembling carrots in shape, with canker-resistance, smooth skin, and a whiter color. An obliging vegetable, parsnips can simply be overwintered in the soil where they grew, to be harvested in the spring.
Parsnips are being sold both as minis and full-sized roots for braising and soups.
Better shaped varieties of root parsley, are being “discovered” by consumers beyond their typical ethnic clientele, as a delicious and sought-after soup ingredient. Remember not to put root parsley, parsnips, and white carrots together on your market stand without clear labeling.
Hybrid beet varieties are now available for every conceivable specialized use. Try Boro for bunching beets with extremely healthy foliage resistant to cercospora and purpling. For a very sweet beet, Red Cloud has the highest brix of any red beet. Your customers won’t want to add sugar. For uniform slices with minimal waste, plant Taunus. “This beet will be a hit with chefs for its ease of preparation, and will be a conversation piece at your market stand. It looks like a carrot!” commented van der Heide. “But do take care to plant Taunus on good soil, and keep it hilled up as it grows. If it is not repeatedly hilled, the top, out-of-the ground part of the root will bend over of its own weight. After reaching the ground, the long root will start to grow upward again. You’ll get an ‘L-shaped’ root rather than a cylindrical beet.”
Chefs like yellow beets because they don’t “bleed” into the salad or casserole. Yellow beets are sometimes being sold in value-added packs shredded, cubed and sliced. “Yellow beets tend to lack good seedling vigor, however,” van der Heide commented. “The seed can be difficult to germinate and get a good stand.” If possible, irrigate yellow beets regularly for a less rough-looking appearance.
“If you market several colors of beets, I’d recommend you sell them in mixed bunches, so customers will take home all the colors and discover the special flavors of each,” noted van der Heide.
If you don’t want to thin your beets, ask about the sprout count of the seeds. Smaller sized seed may average 1.2 to 1.3 sprouts per seed, while larger seed can have two to three sprouts per seed. Or purchase a monogerm seed such as Moneta or Solo, which have been bred to produce one sprout per seed.
Turning to carrots, “It can be more interesting to discuss carrot types than the varieties,” van der Heide believes. The type of carrot you choose can make a big difference in the flavor and texture.
Most supermarket carrots, as well as baby carrots sold in packs in grocery stores, (which are simply cut and shaped pieces of large carrots), are Imperator types: long, slender and extremely hard, with a higher level of terpenoids. Because they are hard and tough, Imperator-type carrots can be machine-harvested and run through a washer and other machinery without cracking. Imperator types also grow well in the ‘continental’-type climates characteristic of much of the U.S., with very hot summers, wide temperature and moisture swings, and torrential rains.
A lot of people are not happy with the flavor and texture of supermarket carrots. If your climate is milder and less continental, you have the opportunity to endear yourself to your CSA or farm market customers by growing other carrot types not usually found in supermarkets.
Nantes types, for example, are tenderer and bruise and break too easily for a machine-handled supermarket carrot. With a crunchy texture and a lower level of terpenoids, Nantes-type carrots will bring your customers back asking for more. Recommended early Nantes varieties for bunching include Napoli, which has very clean tops, and Yaya, with an exceptionally good flavor. Heat and drought tolerant Nantes varieties for hot summers include Naval and Newhall (compare to Bolero.) These hold well in the field and store well.
Chantenay-type carrots have a meatier texture and the lowest level of terpenoids. Chantenays are often grown as very large carrots for processing and for chefs. A Chantenay variety such as Cupar can easily bring you 60 tons per acre, particularly if planted and harvested with potato equipment. Chantenay types such as Caracas can also be planted very close together to produce delicious baby carrots for small packs. Chantenay types are ideal for hard soil.
Amsterdam forcing carrots, grown in cold frames in spring and fall in the Netherlands, produce a genuine baby carrot, which is very tender. In a variety such as Adelaide, color and flavor develop very quickly. “Your CSA customers will love it and will pay you extra if you can supply it. Grow these 60 to 70 seeds per foot in a strip three to four inches wide,” advised van der Heide.
Terpenoids and coumarins can develop to a greater or lesser degree depending on the stress the plant is subject to, and can cover the sweet carrot flavor with one ”reminiscent of diesel fuel or paint thinner,” as van der Heide described it. You can’t always control the stresses of heat, drought and intense UV light, but you can control rough handling and bruising during harvesting and washing, which can raise the level of terpenoids. In addition, to keep terpenoid levels as low as possible, don’t store carrots with ethylene producers, such as apples or with rotting onions or cabbage.
Also, avoid contact between stored carrots and exhaust fumes from idling diesel trucks just outside your storage or poorly tuned forklifts. These fumes contain ethylene, making carrots bitter.
These tips will satiate not only the palate, but also the eye.
Summer planting of root vegetables
by William and Mary Weaver