Root crops Carrots beets and radishes
Root crops provide good eating well into the fall and winter, and they're easy to grow. Raised beds filled with loose, fertile, stone-free soil provide just the right environment. In addition to the usual orange carrots, consider growing white, yellow, and purple varieties. If your soil is heavy or rocky, try shorter, stubbier varieties like Danvers Half-Long and Parisian Market. Beets come in a range of colors in addition to the common dark red, including white, orange, and red-and-white-striped Chioggia. Like hot peppers, radish varieties differ in how hot or pungent they are, so choose varieties according to your taste preference.
- Planting: Directly sow root crop seeds a few weeks before the last frost date for your area. Sow the seeds lightly and cover them with sand, potting soil, or grass clippings to keep them moist. Radishes germinate within a few days; carrots may take 2 weeks. I usually mix radish and carrot seeds to help mark the row and harvest the radishes before the carrots need the space.
- Care: Root crops generally need loose soil well amended with compost, weed-free growing conditions, and consistently moist soil to thrive. Thin the seedlings so the eventual spacing is about 2 to 4 inches apart, depending on the crop. If you don't thin root crops when they're young, they won't get large enough to eat. You can eat the thinned beet greens.
- Harvesting: Pull up radishes when the roots get large enough to eat. Leave carrots and beets in the ground to harvest as needed. Their flavor gets sweeter after the soil cools. You can even cover carrots in late fall with a cold frame, fill it with hay mulch, and harvest carrots all winter.
- Pests and diseases: Other than four-legged critters such as rabbits, which love to eat the carrot and beet tops, the biggest pest of carrots is the rust fly. The adult fly lays an egg near the carrot, and the small larvae tunnel into the carrot root. Cover the crop with a row cover to prevent the flies from laying eggs. Swallowtail butterfly larvae also like to munch on carrot tops, so try to grow enough for all of you!
As soon as you harvest corn, the sugars in the kernels begin to turn to starch, making the corn less sweet as time goes by. But many new sweet-corn varieties stay sweeter longer after harvest because plant breeders breed them to contain supersweet characteristics. These varieties — which include Bodacious (yellow), Honey N'Pearl (bicolor), and How Sweet It Is (white) — must be planted at least 25 to 100 feet from other, non-supersweet varieties. If another variety pollinates a supersweet variety, the kernels may be tough and starchy. Another way to separate varieties is to stagger the planting dates so only one type of corn is in flower at a time.
If you're satisfied with regular, old-fashioned varieties, choose those with yellow, white, or both-colored (bicolor) kernels. If you plant yellow and white varieties in close proximity, you may get bicolor corn anyway. Some of my favorites include Silver Queen (white) and Early Sunglow (yellow).
- Planting: Sow seeds in blocks of 4 to 5 short rows after the soil has warmed to 65 degrees. Separate blocks of different corn varieties by at least 25 feet so that no cross-pollination occurs.
- Care: Sweet corn needs well-drained, highly fertile soil and warm weather to grow well. Hoe soil up around the plants when they're 8 inches tall to support them during windy days and to destroy young weeds that compete with the corn plants. Fertilize at planting (with compost) and again when the corn is knee-high (with a high-nitrogen fertilizer such as soybean meal). Fertilize a final time with the same fertilizer when the silk emerges at the tips of the ears.
- Harvesting: Start checking for maturity when the corn ears feel full and the silks are brown. You can take a peek under the husks at the corn ear tip to see whether the kernels have matured. Pick the ears on the young side for the sweetest flavor.
- Pests and diseases: Major corn pests include the corn earworm and corn borer. The earworm larvae tunnel into the tip of the corn ear, causing only cosmetic damage; the ear is still edible. Either spray Bt on the silks or apply a few drops of mineral oil when ears are young to kill the earworm larvae. Varieties with extra-tight husks, such as Tuxedo, resist damage.
Corn-borer larvae cause more major damage to a plant by tunneling into the leaves and stalk. Bt sprays and crop rotation can help lessen the problems from corn borers.
Raccoons are the other major corn pests. Raccoons love corn and seem to know when it's ripe. An electric fence is the best — and maybe the only — defense against these clever animals.
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