Gardening Articles: Care :: Plant Care Techniques

Growing Root Crops

by National Gardening Association Editors

Three essentials to a healthy crop of roots is thining, weeding, and watering.

The First Thinning

Thinning is a must with root crops. Crowded conditions cause them to become stunted or twisted around each other, and that's not good. You have to thin if you want roots that are big enough to eat. Starting when the seedlings are approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch tall, you can thin by hand or use the simple but effective iron-rake method.

Thinning with a rake is a snap. Just pull an iron garden rake once across the row with its teeth going into the soil about 1/4 inch. The teeth are spaced at intervals to catch just enough seedlings, pulling them from the row. Don't look down as you're doing this -- it's a horrible sight. You may think you've destroyed the whole row of plants, but don't fret. The remaining ones will perk up in a day or so. You can thin a single row this way, too.

Raking also cultivates the soil, stirring up and killing "weedlings." Most young weeds haven't had time to develop a deep taproot, so this initial thinning will dislodge them before they come up, exposing their shallow roots and killing them. Some of the worst garden weeds (pigweed, lamb's-quarter and many others) have very strong taproots, and the idea is to catch these weeds before they put down deep roots.

By thinning with a rake, you also break any crust on the surface, aerating the soil at the same time.

You can thin by hand if the rake technique seems a little too drastic. Simply pull up enough plants that the remaining ones will stand one to two inches apart. You may not trust the rake method at first, but try it on at least part of a row. With the rake you can thin (and weed) all your root crops in just a minute or two, whereas thinning by hand seems to take forever.

The best time to thin is a few hours after a rain or a thorough watering, when the soil is damp but the plants have dried off completely. (Never weed, thin or harvest around wet plants, because you can spread disease from your hands and clothing without knowing it.) Damp soil permits seedlings to be pulled without disturbing the roots of the remaining plants, and any weeds that start to germinate after a rain will be uprooted, too. If it's very dry on the day you decide to thin, water the surface of the soil, so you don't pull up more seedlings than you intend.

Because beet seeds produce clusters of seedlings, the simplest way to thin them is with an iron rake. The rake teeth will uproot just the right number of seedlings. If you thin by hand, don't try to remove any of the seedlings from within a single cluster. It's too easy to disturb the remaining ones. Instead, pull up whole clusters, leaving two to three inches between them. If you like beet greens, sow the seeds a little thicker than is usually recommended on seed packages. When the beets are a little bigger, thin them again; along with the greens, you'll also get a great harvest of marble-sized baby beets.

Thinning always seems more traumatic for the gardener than it is for the plants. People don't like to pull up those helpless seedlings that have just barely made it through the soil surface. Think of it as helping your whole crop and giving you more food to eat, and it will soon be a natural part of your garden routine.

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