- Author: Alison Collin
EXPLORING YOUR ROOTS
When frosts have annihilated our tomatoes and peppers it is good to see the leeks and parsnips standing unaffected and ready for harvest.
These plants are biennial, making initial growth one year, then dying down in the fall, but storing food in the roots. The following spring they grow rapidly, flower and die. It is the swollen root which provides us with food and this has to be harvested at the end of the first season before growth restarts since many become tough and woody at this point. Unfortunately they do have a long growing season which means that they take up land space for much of the year, but the upside to this is that they can be left in the ground for the winter and harvested when necessary. There have been occasions in West Bishop when I needed to use a pick ax to get them out of the frozen soil!
Parsnips: Come from Northern Europe and Siberia, are related to carrots and do surprisingly well in the high desert. They produce a long tapered white root so need a very deeply dug, stone free soil, regular moisture, and some protection from the hottest sun. It is best to plant in ground that has been manured for a previous crop, since freshly manured soil causes the roots to fork.
Sow seeds in spring ½” to 1” deep, and keep soil evenly moist until germination. Be warned – they take about three weeks to emerge, and I am usually on the point of re-sowing when they suddenly appear, although soaking the seeds before sowing is said to speed things up. Thin the plants as soon as they are large enough to handle, and thin again as they grow until the final spacing is about 8”. The tops are quite large so leave at least 1 ft between rows. In West Bishop I have sown as early as the beginning of February under cover, however the roots matured rather too early in the summer to be useful as a winter crop, so late March or early April may be better from that point of view. The “120 days” to maturity” quoted on the seed packet is a little optimistic in my experience. They are certainly ready to harvest when the tops die down in late summer, and can be left in the ground until the end of the year if necessary, so long as they are dug up before growth restarts. It is thought that the flavor of the roots is made sweeter if they are exposed to frost, although I know of no scientific evidence that has proven this.
They have been blissfully free of pests and diseases here, but it is generally recommended to plant canker resistant varieties. I have tried several different varieties including Albion, Gladiator (the best), All American and Hollow Crown and all have consistently performed well producing large roots. Hollow Crown did become very woody in the core this year (2014) – perhaps due to the very hot summer. Even so the roots were so big that I could cut the core away and still have plenty of tender flesh to eat.
Known since Roman times the finished product is very versatile and can be eaten raw but are usually cooked in a variety of ways. There are numerous recipes on the internet, but my personal favorite is to parboil them for 8 minutes, toss them in oil or butter and then roast them in the oven until golden.
Leeks: Resemble a large green onion with a “stem” about 1 – 1.5” in diameter, the portion being eaten is that immediately above the roots, and is made up of tightly overlapping leaves. This area is traditionally blanched while growing in order to make it as long and white as possible.
Leeks have consistently grown very well in Bishop when given afternoon shade. They like a rich, well manured, soil with regular irrigation. The gray strap-like leaves get quite large so they need about 15” between rows.
I sow seeds indoors at the beginning of February to be ready for planting in mid-April. They will take about 170 days to maturity. Local nurseries routinely carry six packs of young plants (often containing more than 30 plants – great value). Leeks don't mind having their roots disturbed, so they are easy to transplant. There are two alternate methods of planting out.
In the first, the method that I prefer, holes are dibbled into the soil, the depth being roughly half the length of the plant or a little less, leaving about 8” between plants. Then I place a plant in the bottom of the hole, and gently water it so that some of the soil falls into the hole, covering the roots. Gradually through the season the soil fills in the hole, leaving a slight depression around the plant which is helpful for irrigation purposes. When the plants are about 9” high I slip a toilet roll tube over the plants. This prevents sun damage and cleanly blanches the lower portion of the stem. With drip irrigation these easily hold up through a season, although I am not sure how they would perform with sprinklers.
In the second method, a trench about 1' deep is dug, and compost or rotted manure is worked into the bottom. The plants are then placed into the trench and a little of the soil is drawn back over the roots. About a month after planting more soil is drawn up around the plants, (like earthing up potatoes) and this continues through the season as the plants grow. The drawback to this method is that it is more work, and unless you put a cardboard collar around each plant soil inevitably gets in between the leaves, so preparing them for cooking becomes tedious.
Figure 1: January 26 after surviving an Owens Valley Winter. Still good to eat!
I usually begin harvesting towards the beginning of September, but there is no hurry since the plants will hold up well in the ground until the end of the year or longer.
I have never had any pests or diseases affect my plants here in West Bishop, although occasionally an individual plant may enthusiastically send up a flower spike during the growing season. In this case the center of the plant becomes woody so the plant is best discarded.
Of the varieties that I have tried, Porvite and American Flag have been superior, and I really cannot discern any difference in flavor.