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Getting To The Root Of It

Long after the delicate lettuce goes to seed and well past the tomato season, some gardeners are still harvesting vegetables. Anyone who plants root vegetables, including carrots, parsnips and beets, can look forward to backyard crops well into winter.

Unlike typical vegetables that die with the first frost, root vegetables thrive and provide a special treat for the patient gardener.

"The carrots you dig up in the middle of winter are the sweetest. So are the parsnips," says Vermont-based garden expert Edward C. Smith.

Although root vegetables don't continue to grow in late fall or early winter because of a lack of sun, the plants do undergo a transformation, say garden experts.

Carrots and parsnips change their starch to sugar to prevent ice crystals from forming inside the plant cells, according to Smith, author of "The Vegetable Gardener's Bible" (Storey Publishing, 2000).

You can keep beets, carrots and potatoes in the ground until December if you cover the plot with dirt and a layer of straw, says Terry Nennich, University of Minnesota Extension horticulture educator.

"Some farmers pull up their parsnips in the spring," says Nennich. Smith lets his root vegetables linger in snow-covered soil using a fiberglass fence post to mark the bed so he can find his crops.

But unlike carrots, parsnips, beets and rutabagas, radishes should be pulled as soon they've grown to an edible size. Radishes develop a strong taste if left in the ground too long.

If you'd prefer to dig up root vegetables and bring them indoors, choose a storage space with high humidity and temperatures ranging from 32 to 35 degrees, Nennich says, because higher temperatures will lead to reduced storage time.

Tempting though it is to wash vegetables, keep them dirt covered until you're ready to prepare them.

"You may break the skin even if you can't see it and then white mold sets in, infecting the vegetable," Nennich says.

Getting To The Root Of It