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Some Veggies Get To Show Off

September 23, 1998

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) _ Some veggies like tomatoes, peppers and corn show off their charms in the midsummer sun. Others achieve their glory in the dirt.

Radishes, carrots and beets are probably the most grown of the root crops, but I’ll take the parsnip for adventure crowned by great taste. Can any Northern gardener be complete who hasn’t dug through winter snow and ice to savor the unique sweetness of a parsnip? Turnips, rutabaga and kohlrabi also contribute their own nuances to this soil-hugging realm.

Then there’s the potato, sometimes called the world’s No. 1 vegetable. It hides so well below the surface you grieve when you slice one in half if harvesting with a spade.

The radish is the fastest and the parsnip the slowest to mature. It takes only 18 days to grow an early variety of radish, from sowing the seed to slicing one for a salad. By contrast, the parsnip, sown in early spring, is not ready until many months later when the onset of freezing weather generates its sweetness.

Quick germination also makes radishes useful for marking a row where you’ve also sown slow-sprouting seeds. Besides the familiar red ones, radishes come in black and white colors. There are late fall varieties that mature in 70 days and may be stored through the winter in a cool place in sand or sawdust.

Believed of Chinese origin, the radish was a common food in ancient Egypt. The Greeks ranked them so high they sculptured them in gold.

While beet greens were cultivated in antiquity, the root itself first appears in Roman recipes of the 2nd century and it was not until the 16th century that the globes began to get popular. After experimenting with several varieties, I’ve settled for one called ``Winter Keeper″ that can grow very large and stay in the ground for months without losing flavor.

Beets like sweet soil. If the plants grow stunted, a likely cause is acidic soil. Mixing lime or wood ashes into the ground before sowing helps create the needed alkalinity.

Beet greens, eaten raw in salads, are more nutritious than the cooked roots, boasting vitamins A, B and C and calcium and iron. Turnip greens, popular in the South, pack a lot of vitamin A and also provide iron, calcium and potassium.

To cultivate these greens sow beet and turnips seeds thickly, then thin the seedlings out as they grow. Use the thinnings as greens, leaving the others in the ground for the roots to swell. Of course, unless you’ve got a lot of space, you’ll get only a few meals of greens, but they’re worth it.

The turnip globe, known to the Greeks and Romans, is recommended as a fall crop, but in my relatively cool hills north of Manhattan I’ve grown good ones in spring and also harvested them as late as August without loss of flavor. Rutabaga, quite similar to turnip, but larger and perhaps sweeter, gets its name from the Swedish ``rotabagge.″ In England and Canada it’s know as ``Swede,″ or ``Swede turnip.″

Kohlrabi _ from the German ``kohl″ (cabbage) and ``rabi″ (turnip) _ is a ``new″ vegetable in the sense that it wasn’t known anywhere before 500 years ago. Because of its two origins, some have called it ``the mongrel of the vegetable kingdom.″ I find it easy to grow and with a delicate flavor of cabbage.

Carrots, believed of Afghanistan origin, were in times past deemed fit mainly for horses, but their vitamin A content have made them a notable health food. With many varieties available, it’s best to experiment to see which do best in your soil. Some gardeners create special carrot frames where they can control moisture and temperature to get them going.

Both carrots and parsnips are hard to start in the open ground because of their slow germination. What works for me is to sow them in flats indoors under fluorescent lights and then transplant the seedlings to the garden.

Of these underground crops, the potato is the only one of native American origin _ probably Chilean _ and the only one a gardener doesn’t grow from small seeds. Rather, you buy seed potatoes _ which are a piece of the tuber or a small potato _ from a commercial grower. You cut these into pieces showing at least one ``eye″ and plant them a foot apart usually in trenches 8 inches deep. You bury them about 4 inches deep and, after the green plant emerges, gradually ``hill″ up the trench with more soil.

Small new potatoes are recommended for home gardens. I like a yellow-fleshed variety called ``fingerling″ imported by early German settlers, tender and delicious.

___

George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

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