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The root of the matter

February 21, 2016

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Freshly dug potatoes
Freshly dug potatoes

Growing root vegetables is an integral part of ‘Kitchen Gardening’ as, not only are they packed with varied nutrition but they also have the in-built ability to be stored, for reasonable periods of time, without having to resort to using electricity which, as we all know to our cost and personal discomfort, has a bad habit of playing hide-’n-seek throughout the rapidly approaching summer months.

Root vegetables, potatoes being a prime example, are excellent ‘ground breakers’ and soil improvers. As they grow, sending roots down and outwards, they work to break up the soil; plus, being deeper rooted than above ground veggies, such as cabbages, they seek out otherwise inaccessible minerals, taking them up into their own root systems and then into the above ground foliage from where, either via the breakdown of left behind fine roots when the crop is dug up or by composting of the stems and leaves, these precious resources are made available to other plants.

Let’s now take a look at some of the easiest to grow root vegetables:


Enhance your kitchen garden by growing root vegetables


  1. Potatoes: Soil should be rich in organic material — ideally this should be home-made, organic, compost mixed with old, well-rotted, organic manure — be in a well-drained, sunny location where air circulation is good. Poor air circulation can result in the formation of fungal diseases, such as blight, when humidity becomes high. Purchase ‘seed potatoes’ from your local seed store or buy good looking, medium sized potatoes from the bazaar. Lay these ‘seed potatoes’ — in trays or on newspaper — in a light, airy place until they have developed shoots no more than an inch long. Plant, preferably in rows running north to south for maximum sunlight on both sides of the plants, in trenches six to eight inches deep and rows 18 inches apart, heaping up any extra, excavated soil, in lines between the rows, as you go. Once the shoots appear above the soil, gently and carefully, cover them over, using an implement called a ‘draw-hoe’ if you have one or a rake; repeat this ‘heaping up / earthing up’ of the plants until the mounds are about eight to 10 inches high. This process helps encourage strong growth, both above and below the ground, increasing crop potential; plus, it helps ensure that all developing potato tubers remain covered. Any tuber, in full or in part, exposed to sunlight, turns green and this green part is poisonous and should not, therefore, be eaten. Keep the crop watered and free of weeds, mulch between rows if you can as this suppresses weeds, assists in keeping tubers covered and reduces the need for water during hot weather. Once the potato plants have flowered — they take a few weeks to reach this stage — they will, quite naturally, begin to yellow and die back. Once the plants have completely died back, carefully dig up your potatoes and prepare a mouth-watering treat like no other.

Potatoes can, throughout the plains and coastal regions of the country, be planted from August to November and again from January till the end of March. In hill stations and other mountainous areas, potatoes are spring planted only.

Black Russian radish
Black Russian radish
  1. Sweet potatoes: These enjoy exactly the same soil and growing conditions as ‘ordinary’ potatoes but are planted differently. Select healthy, medium to large-sized sweet potatoes in the bazaar, ensuring that each has a number of ‘eyes’ from which new shoots will emerge. Cut into half across the middle and half submerge the pieces, cut part down, in pots / trays of sandy soil, water well, enclose in plastic bags, tie closed and leave in a sunny spot — no need to open the bags as the enclosed humidity waters the plants — until growth is well- established. Plant out on top of the mounds, each one about three feet in diameter and each mound approximately two to three feet away from its neighbour. Growth may be slow at first but is rapid once the plants get going. Water during dry spells, keep weed free and, carefully, dig up the tubers six to eight months later. Sweet potatoes can also be propagated from stem cuttings.

Start them off from March to October in Karachi and the south, March in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and during April in Quetta and upland areas of the country.

  1. Carrots and radish: These adore well-drained, sandy soil in a sunny spot and should be thinly sown, in rows, about a quarter of an inch deep and six to eight inches apart. Main-crop carrots can be sown during August to November throughout the plains and coastal regions and spring elsewhere. ‘Baby carrots’ can also be sown from February to April everywhere.
Beetroot & Radish China rose
Beetroot & Radish China rose

Radish, irrespective of size, colour, type, can be sown around the year in the plains —although it must be said that mooli does better over the cooler winter months as do the cold weather species ‘Black Russian radish’ and ‘China Rose’.

  1. Turnip: Sow seeds, as thinly as possible, in reasonably good, well -draining soil with lots of organic material worked in, at a depth of one quarter to half an inch deep — no more or they will fail to germinate — in rows 10 to 12 inches apart. Water as needed, mulch if you can and keep free of weeds. Sow seed from August to November in coastal regions and the plains and April to May in upland areas.

  2. Beetroot: Exactly the same as for turnips.

  • As our climate is changing — quite rapidly it seems — it is worth experimenting by, if the weather ‘feels’ suitable, sowing seeds a month before, until a month after, recommended sowing times: you may — or may not — strike it lucky by doing this but it is definitely worth a try. Good luck!

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 21st, 2016