Strong Roots

Every gardener I know has seed fever right now, so let's get started, from the ground up, starting with our root vegetables: onions, carrots, beets, and garlic!


3/4/20235 min read

For the purpose of this guide, I will be focusing on the big four: onions, garlic, beets and carrots, but there are a few other root veggies you may be familiar with including parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, and turnips.

The coolest part about growing root veggies? Well, they are cold weather hardy (see what I did there? >.<) and some of the earliest crops you can get started on in the spring when you start to get that anxious gardening fever. So, let's dig in! ;)

Onions: I don't recommend growing onions in sets just because they've already been dried out, causing them to be under stress and they may bolt early. Instead, it’s best to grow from starts or from seed directly into garden beds/ground. If sowing directly, they are safe to plant outside 4-6 weeks before the final spring "light freeze". Visit this website to plug in your zip code and find out an estimate of when that would be. If you intend to sow seeds indoors and transplant, this can be done as many as 8-10 weeks before you intend to move them outside, just remember: the earlier you plant the larger they will get (depending on which variety you grow) and thusly, the more space they may need.

Once outside, onions need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight every day. To prep their area, make sure the top 12 inches of soil are loose and workable with good drainage. They prefer soil pH between 6.2 and 6.8 - pH testing kits can be ordered online or found at most garden supply stores. Plant seeds or starts 1" deep with 4-6 inches on each side (more for larger varieties, less for smaller varieties). Onions tend to be heavy feeders, so plan to feed them a high phosphorous fertilizer right after planting, then mark your calendar for a high nitrogen fertilizer feeding 3 weeks later. Be sure to water deeply with each fertilization, but not to over water (yellow foliage tips are a sign of too much water or a nutrient imbalance) and stop fertilizing once onion has bulbed. Onions are ready for harvesting approximately 1 week after the onion tops have "fallen" or folded over. Once pulled, cure them spread out on racks with a fan to keep the air moving around them; the temperature should remain between 75 and 80 degrees for ideal curing process.

Why grow onions? Onions are easy to grow and rich in vitamins and trace minerals, especially Vitamins C, B6 and folate. They also happen to be a good source of fiber, potassium and of course, flavor for everything from pickling to sauces, sautéed or even in baked goods.

Garlic: This is the earliest crop you can plant, as the best time is between September and November the autumn before you want to harvest them. So, when you button up your garden in the fall plan to also plant your garlic bulbs, if you’ve already amended your soil there’s no need to add anything else – some people do this in the fall, and others prefer to do it in the spring, so if you’re a spring soil amender you’ll want to till in some compost at least a week before in the spots where you plan to plant your garlic. Plant the bulbs root side down (pointy end up) at least 4 to 6 inches deep to account for soil settling, and anywhere from 4 to 8 inches apart depending on the variety you’re growing. If a freeze is going to happen soon in your area, you’ll want to cover the bed with at least 3 inches of straw to help keep the soil warm enough for the garlic bulbs to get established roots before ground temps drop. Make sure to choose a place where, in the spring, they will get 6-8 hours of daylight and full sun. Make sure to use healthy cloves with the papery shell still attached.

Some gardeners choose to plant rose for large yields, but unless you’re a professional farm – what might be more useful is planting a few bulbs in each raised bed or garden area – they make a great pest deterrent and companion crop for tomatoes! Why is it best to plant garlic in autumn? Well, garlic thrives if it can experience a period of dormancy or cold temperatures at or below 40 degrees F for at least 4 weeks, but longer is even better.

Why grow garlic? Garlic is high in the trace minerals manganese and selenium, as well as adds fiber and flavor to meals!

Beets: Beets are best grown from seed sown directly into your garden or the ground. If you examine a beet seed closely, you’ll notice that each seed is actually a cluster of seeds. As cold tolerant root veggies, beets can be planted very early in the spring before the last frost. It can take a while for germination to happen due to the softening of this cluster, which is why some gardeners will presoak their beet seeds to accelerate the germination process. Beets need full sun, about 1 inch of water each week, and about 6-8 weeks to grow before being ready to harvest. Beets are best harvested when they are 1-2 inches in diameter but will remain tender when bigger if kept consistently watered. Plant beet seeds about 1 inch deep and 3-4 inches apart in loose, rich, well-drained soil. Thin when seedlings are about 2 or 3 inches tall – to avoid waste, try using thinned plants as microgreens in salads!

Why grow beets? Beets are a great source of fiber, folate, vitamin K, vitamin A and other trace minerals. The beet greens don’t need to be thrown away either, use them in salads or sautéed similarly to chard/spinach in meals. It’s also a beloved treat for backyard flocks! The beet roots themselves are so versatile; roast ‘em, juice ‘em, fry ‘em, steam ‘em, can ‘em, pickle ‘em, or even ferment ‘em!

Carrots: The last, but certainly not least, cold tolerant root veggie to cover is the charismatic carrot! They are best grown from seed in early spring, about 2 or 3 weeks before the last frost. Prepare their soil by tilling 10 inches down and thoroughly weeding their spot. Amend the top 6 inches of soil with compost and sandy topsoil, then plant them in a spot where they will get 6 to 10 hours of full sun. Plant them about a half inch deep, 2 inches apart in rows about 2 feet apart, and be prepared to thin them when they get to be about 2 inches tall (by snipping off the top as it’s less risky to the delicate roots of its neighbors) since these seeds are super small and difficult to get spread out evenly. It’s always best to sow carrots directly rather than transplanting, as they do not like their roots messed with (I mean, who does?!). Germination is most successful with soil temps above 55 degrees F and can take as many as 14-21 days, so make sure you give them plenty of time before giving up!

A couple tips for growing carrots include 1) lightly mulching after sowing seeds to help carrots retain moisture, regulate temperature and speed up germination; 2) sowing rows of quick germinating radishes in between each row of carrots to precent biocrust from forming and stopping little carrots from breaking through; and 3) feed only once, about 5-6 weeks after initial planting, with a low nitrogen fertilizer.

Why grow carrots? Besides being tasty, easy to grow, and a lovely source of color for any meal – carrots are one of the best courses of vitamin A you can grow. They are also high in vitamin C, beta carotene, potassium and calcium.