Savoring & Sowing Winter Root Vegetables

Rutabagas are delicious, productive root vegetables perfect for winter growing.

Late fall still brings garden bounty in the form of earthy, late-season root vegetables—turnips, parsnips, winter carrots and rutabagas among them. Not just any root vegetable is adapted for colder seasons. The best are made for fall and winter—remaining crisp, sweet and delicious even after deep frosts. All are also bestowed with remarkable storage qualities.

For most Americans, the best time to start these vegetables is in early fall, but those with cold frames, or those living further south, can continue to grow cool season root vegetables well into winter. All one needs are growing temperatures that remain between 35 to 60 degrees F, fertile soil that’s deep and light, full sun and protection from wind. Amending soil with Fafard® Premium Topsoil and top-dressing with a layer of Fafard® Premium Organic Compost will encourage healthy growth while protecting plants.

Daucus carota 'Kinko'
Crisp winter carrots can stay in the ground in the cold of winter.

Rutabagas are the underground kings of the cool season vegetable patch. One enormous, globe-like, purple-topped white or yellowish root can be enough to feed a family, and the sweet cabbage-like flavor adds a pleasant wintery taste to stews and mashed vegetable blends. The high-yielding behemoth ‘Helenor’ is a great purple-topped variety for new growers to try. The best time to plant them is in early fall, where winters are cold, or late fall, where winters are mild. Their round seeds should be lightly covered and will germinate in 7 to 15 days, if planted when temperatures are a little warmer (optimally around 65 degrees F). On average, they take between 80 and 100 days to mature, depending on the variety.
Winter carrots are distinguished by several characteristics. First, they tend to be cold hardy and store very well. Many even overwinter well in the ground. Two great carrots for winter growing include the sweet, medium-sized, orange carrot ‘Napoli’ and the comparable ‘Merida’. Both are remarkably cold resistant and remain pleasant and sweet during the cold months. In most areas, mid-fall is a good time to plant these for winter growing, but further south or under cover they can be planted into late fall. In really cold areas, hoop row covers are recommended for protection. The small, flattened seeds should be lightly covered and will germinate in 12 to 15 days if given moderately warm days between 70 and 75 degrees F.

Hakurei turnips
Pure white ‘Hakurei’ turnips have an unusually sweet, crisp flavor and texture.

Turnips may be round or elongated, purple-topped or all while, but all are easy-to-grow cool weather vegetables. Their sweet flavor is best enjoyed cooked, though crunchy fresh turnip salads or relishes are not uncommon. The fast-growing vegetables can mature between 30 and 60 days, depending on the variety, and their small round seeds germinate quickly in as little as seven days. Two excellent varieties for flavor and performance are the classic ‘Purple Top White Globe’ and pure white-rooted ‘Hakurei’, which is best eaten fresh. It can be a challenge to start parsnips from seed (they are notoriously slow, taking 14 to 25 days), but it’s worth the effort. The large, ivory-colored, carrot-like roots are delicious when cooked—lending a unique sweet flavor to dishes. The long, tapered cultivar ‘Javelin’ is a great variety for overwintering and maintains a clean ivory color.

Classic turnips
Classic purple-topped turnips are the best for cooking.

Mice, voles and other critters are big root vegetable enemies—especially in cold months when food is harder to come by. Several measures can be taken to keep rodents away from your root crops. Fine-holed wire mesh fences sunk into the ground around a plot and extending above ground 12 inches or more will dissuade most of these critters. Some commercial repellents can also be helpful; just be sure they are approved for vegetable gardening.
Die hard food gardeners continue to grow crops such as these into the winter months, and with a little effort you can too. Build a cold frame or buy a few row covers and get your winter root veg into the ground while you still can.

Savory Winter Root Vegetable Mash

Nothing is nicer for fall and winter festivities than a savory vegetable mash of potatoes, rutabaga and parsnips. This simple recipe is also healthier than your standard mashed potatoes because rutabagas are high in vitamin C and potassium and parsnips are high in folate.
1 lb peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
1 lb peeled cubed rutabaga (2 inch cubes)
1 lb peeled, thickly sliced parsnips
3 tablespoons soft butter
¼ cup heavy cream
A dash nutmeg (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Place vegetables in a medium-sized saucepan, and just cover them with water. Put the pan on high heat; add a pinch of salt and cover. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to medium, keeping the pan covered. After 15 to 20 minutes the vegetables should be fork tender. Remove the pan from the heat.
Drain the vegetables and potatoes and place them in a large bowl. Add the cream and butter. Using a potato masher, gently mash the mix until fairly well mashed. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg, then, using a hand mixer, whip the vegetables just until smooth. Be careful not to over beat the vegetables. Add a little additional cream, if needed.