The Crestone Eagle • October, 2021

Garden Guru: Tending Our Roots

by Matie Belle Lakish

It’s official, summer is over. Tomatoes, squashes, beans and corn have seen their day. It’s time to tend to our roots—root crops, that is. Carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips, garlic and onions may still be with us for a while and will offer themselves for storage into the winter. Thanks, roots.

Janet Woodman shows off her root harvest. “It took two of us, a couple of years ago, to wrestle these big parsnips out of the ground.”

Let’s start with garlic. You may have harvested the garlic already—it’s typically ready in August or early September, but dig it now if you haven’t already. The cloves that were planted last fall will be mature now, and it’s time to replant for next year. If you haven’t grown garlic before, the planting cycle looks something like this: 

In the fall, prepare your soil, then select some nice large bulbs to plant for next years crop. If you don’t have your own, you can order them from various seed catalogs, or easier still, buy a few good-sized garlics from the store, break them apart, and plant the individual cloves. Plant them with the root end down and cover with about 1 to 1½ inches of soil. Water well. They will typically come up and grow a bit in the fall. Before the weather gets really cold, mulch them with some straw to over-winter. 

In the spring, the leaves will appear again and grow more vigorously. They look like flattish onion tops. With water, the one clove you planted will multiply, and produce a typical bulb cluster by fall. Somewhere around July, the garlic will try to reproduce by sending up a flower stalk. The bud is a long pointy thing on a long stem called a garlic scape. If allowed to flower, it will make a pretty white cluster of flowers and then tiny bulbs that will dip over and plant themselves. You will end up with lots of tiny garlic plants, but no sizable bulbs to eat. Most gardeners, therefore, cut off the scapes, forcing the plant to put its energy into making larger bulbs. If you cut the garlic scapes off before they bloom, you can cut them up and use them as seasoning, or pickle them for eating later in the winter. 

Sometime in late August you can dig up the bulbs. Usually, the tops of the plants will tell you they are ready by beginning to turn yellow and brown as they store their energy in the roots. Dig the bulbs and let them dry for a while in a shady location. Some gardeners remove the tops right away. Others like to tie them into bunches and hang them up to dry for a time. Some gardeners wash the bulbs and peel the outer layers off right away. Others like to wait until they dry out more. In this climate, either strategy works. In a growing area with higher humidity, I find it better to let them dry without washing, and then peel off the dry outer layer to reveal the clean bulbs. You may want to clip off most of the roots as well. 

Garlic stores fairly well, but in our climate it dries out in a few months. Those dried-out bulbs can still be used if pounded into a powder. Another strategy is to peel and blend garlic bulbs while they are fairly fresh and then freeze little cubes for later use. 

After digging the fall crop, save some of your larger cloves for planting. September is an excellent time to replant, but early October will also work. The cycle continues.

Onions are a bit easier. Like garlic, the bulbs can be dug now and the tops clipped. Or, bulbs and tops can be hung to dry first, and then the dried tops removed. 

Typically, we plant onions in the spring in this climate. You can buy the small bulbs, called onion sets, which will increase in size over the summer and be harvested in the fall, or you can plant small onion plants in the spring which mature in the fall. However, if you want to grow the small “walking onions” for green onions, you can plant those tiny bulbs now. They will come up in the spring and give you green onions for seasoning early in the year before other things are ready. These are perennials that come back year after year. If you need some of these, give me a call. 

Carrots and beets are ready to harvest now, as well. You have probably been pulling some of these for a couple of months, but now is their best time, as cool weather encourages them to make sugars. Our ancestors relied on these staples, along with potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, winter squash, and cabbages to provide important nutrients during the long winter months. All of these can keep well in a root cellar or other earth-sheltered storage area. They’ll also keep well in your refrigerator drawers. 

This is a good time to turn some of your crop into fermented vegetables. Sauerkraut is the standard fermented crop, but you can vary the selection by adding other root veggies to the mix. Last year we made a fermented medley that included grated carrots and beets as well as shredded cabbage and some chopped kale leaves. If you do this, peel your carrots and beets to avoid introducing soil organisms, then grate them. Shred your cabbage and mince your well-washed kale. Mix your veggies with pickling salt, which doesn’t contain additives, at the rate of 3½ tablespoons to 5 pounds of veggies. Cabbage should constitute at least half of the veggies. 

Next, tamp your veggies with a strong wooden spoon or other wooden tamper until the juice comes out of the veggies. This will take quite a while and requires a strong arm. When it is well tamped and juice is covering the veggies, pack it into clean jars or a stoneware crock. Weigh the veggies down with some kind of clean weight so that they are completely covered with the salty juice. Cover open jars with a clean cloth but don’t put on lids. The veggies need oxygen to ferment. 

Over the course of several days, usually 10 to 20, the salty veggies will start to ferment, and the juice will turn sour. If scum forms, scoop it off. If liquid evaporates, add salty water—1 tablespoon to 3 cups water—to keep the veggies submerged. Keep a clean towel over the jars to keep out fruit flies and debris. Taste test occasionally. The liquid should turn sour, but the veggies should not get too soggy. When done, put lids on the jars and store in the refrigerator. This is very tasty in the winter as an addition to winter salads, and as a side dish for heavier meats and beans. It also provides all those great microorganisms for which fermented foods are known.