By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Parsnips are considered a winter vegetable because they develop a sweeter flavor after several weeks of exposure to cold. The root vegetable forms underground and has an appearance similar to a white carrot. When these do occur, it is important to know what causes deformed parsnips. Then you will be armed with information to help prevent deformed root crops.
What Causes Deformed Parsnips?
Deformed root crops are common in the home garden. Roots may become stunted, twisted, or knotty. Parsnip deformities can also produce forked roots or splits and may break when you try to pull them. The three most common reasons are improper soil preparation, over fertilizing, and root knot nematodes.
- Parsnips do best when direct seeded into fertile, well-worked soil. Garden beds full of rocks, clumps, and other debris aren’t suitable for growing parsnips. The soil needs to be broken up and loose to prevent parsnip deformities.
- When you use compost as a fertilizer, be sure the fertilizer is completely finished and free of clumps that can cause parsnips to misshape as they try to push through the thick clots.
- The tiny root knot nematode is the most common cause of parsnip deformities. If you find your roots are knotty when growing parsnips, the cause is likely from this soil organism. Nematodes overwinter in soil and their feeding activity stimulate the plant cells to form galls on the roots. These galls prevent the plant from accessing adequate water and nutrients, which then stunt the plant. Root knot nematodes are less active in cold temperatures, so overwintering parsnips is a good way to help prevent damage from the pests. While almost impossible to see nematodes, you can sometimes find the female’s pin-sized head in damaged roots, but identification is usually from already deformed parsnips.
Preventing Misshapen Parsnip Root
Soil preparation by tilling and incorporating organic matter loosens the soil to expose nematodes to the elements and adds predatory organisms to the bed that will eat the nematodes. Where soils are heavy, dig down at least 6 inches (15 cm.) and use leaf litter or other carbon rich organic to help loosen soil.
In addition to proper soil preparation, crop rotation is an important step in preventing misshapen parsnip roots.
Finally, choose a parsnip seed that is resistant to root knot nematode. If you purchase seedlings, make sure they are certified nematode-free. Keep the seedbed weed-free. Water well and fertilize lightly to promote a healthy plant that is more resistant to pests and cultural problems.
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Unusually shaped vegetable
An unusually shaped vegetable is a vegetable or fruit that has grown into a shape not in line with its normal body plan. While some examples are just oddly shaped, others are heralded for their amusing appearance, often because they resemble a body part such as the buttocks or genitalia. Pareidolia can be common in vegetables, with some people reporting the appearance of religious imagery.
How to Plant Carrots
Carrots grow well in cool weather. You can begin planting carrot seedlings or sowing carrot seeds as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, even two to three weeks before the last frost. You can succession plant carrots every couple of weeks throughout the spring. In warmer climates, you may have better luck growing carrots in the fall, through the winter.
Carrot seeds are tiny, making it difficult to plant them evenly. Sprinkle the seeds in a row and cover them barely with no more than 1/4 inch of soil. They may take as long as three weeks to sprout. When the seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall, thin them out to a spacing of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Snipping or pinching the seedlings off at the soil line is the best way to avoid hurting the remaining roots.
To prevent the soil from crusting over and making it difficult for the seeds to sprout, you can plant the carrot seeds with radish seeds, which will sprout first and loosen the soil.
To prevent deformed roots, keep the area free of weeds as the carrots are growing. If you need to thin again later, you can use the tiny carrots in salads. When you've finished thinning, your carrots should be far enough apart that they won't rub shoulders when mature.
Too Sandy or Compact
You won't get large potatoes or perfectly tapered carrots (Daucus carota) if the vegetables don't have room to grow underground. Compacted soil, especially, is notorious for preventing root vegetables and any attached roots from growing and spreading. In addition, compacted or sandy soils don't deliver nutrients and water to plants as efficiently as loamy, loose soil does. To achieve this ideal texture, work a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost into the top 12 inches of soil prior to planting. Because you will be digging more deeply into the soil to add compost than you will be for NPK amendments, add compost a week or two before planting day.
Why Do My Carrots look like Spiders?
This is my third year of growing carrots from seed. I learned alot about growing carrots over the last two years, but obviously not enough given how my carrots look. See the picture above. So, what have I learned?
The First Year. The Beginner Year.
The first year, I tried sowing the tiny carrot seeds into the soil. Nothing grew from my first batch of sown seeds. So I decided to try and grow them inside and had a lot of success getting the seeds to sprout. I was definitely on my way, I thought. Once the seedling was about three inches tall, I decided to plant them in my six inch raised bed. Success at last.
About two months later, I could see the carrots shoulders. Ripe for the picking? I waited for a couple more weeks and then with a might yank, out came my first carrot. Stunted and all. My carrot looked like it was missing its bottom. I did not have a clue why my carrot looked so deformed. Fat and dumpy.
I asked a farmer friend why my carrots were so deformed. He told me that carrots need loose soil to grow in. My bed was only tilled six inches and comprised of compost and soil. He suggested that I put in some sand to make it easier for the carrots to grow. My other gardening friends told me that they gave up on growing carrots since they were too hard to grow. Nonsense, I would reply. I was “supergrow woman!” If I could not grow it, I would figure out why. It may take me years, but heck I had the time. Right?
That same year I did get some of the seeds that I sowed to grow. At the same time, I noticed that it was hard for me to figure out what were carrot seedlings and wild carrot weeds, which is Queen Anne Lace. They look identical to an untrained eye (mine!) I noticed that the wild carrot weed was all over the garden and scratched my head wondering if I was losing it and had planted the seeds other places. Did my seeds gets blown around and land in other beds? Luckily, I took a picture of the weed and sent it to my county extension. They informed me that my marbles were still in place, and in fact that look alike was a wild carrot weed. (Whew was I relieved.)
At the end of year 1 carrot growing season, I vowed to right the wrongs of my carrot experiences. Next year was another year.
Year 2 and Thinking I Had it All Figured Out.
Year 2 of my carrot gardening season arrived. I decided to sow my carrots inside since I realized that I was notorious for pulling perfectly good seedlings from my gardening thinking they were weeds. Again, the carrots sprouted marvelously. When it came time to prepare my beds, I tilled down to China. Really. This was going to be the year of the carrot.
I even figured out how to sow them into the soil. I simply put them on top of the soil with a very light smattering of straw and kept them nice and moist. Carrot seeds need light to sprout. Boy, was I flying this year. Lots of carrot seedlings and carrots growing from ones that I sowed right into the soil. Mother Earth was patting me on the head, praising me for ability to rebound from my last year gardening disaster. I could not wait to gloat to all my gardening friends how my carrots looked this year. They would be orange with envy.
A couple months went by and the shoulders started to show up. I waited and then yanked. There was my second year of carrot crop….It looked just like my first year. Distorted, short, and fat at the top. My shoulders drooped. Tears welded up in my eyes. I was ready to turn in my green thumb since I failed again. The only benefit to these stubby carrots were their green manes. I had read that you can use them just like parsley and consequently used them in my chicken soup.
What did I do wrong? Maybe my soil was still not light enough? I eyed two raised beds that I had which were 10 inches deep in another part of my garden and decided I would plant my carrots there. Vowing next year would be different….
Third Year and I Really Have it Figured Out…Really.
This year, I sowed a slew of carrot seedlings and planted them in the 10 inch raised bed that I tilled heavily to make sure the soil was nice and loose. This bed had alot more compost them the other beds. Praying to the carrot gods, I planted all of my seedlings. They grew like wild fire with beautiful tops of gorgeous green heads of hair. I hated pulling them because the bed of carrots was so beautiful.
So when I pulled some, what do you think they looked like? My carrots had multiple legs. A carrot spider. They were a far cry from previous year when they resembled potatoes more than carrots. I have no idea what happened. So, I am reaching out to my readers to ask for help. Please put me out of my carrot misery.
- What is the deal with carrots and me? What am I doing wrong?
- When are carrots ready to be picked? When their shoulders start appearing?
- I am growing parsnips. Will I have the same growing issues?
- Can you grow carrots in containers?
I’m stumped so please help me out here. (Sorry, about the pun, I could not resist.)
Root Vegetables: Underground Culinary Treasures
Like many of my fellow gardeners, I enjoy digging in the dirt, feeling soil textures with my fingertips, and discovering earthworms wriggling around those dark places. Although some people might find this somewhat odd, most young children are eager to grab a stick and poke around in that brown stuff underfoot. Why the compelling interest? For kids, it’s fascination with unexpected critters and other mysteries waiting to be revealed. For me, it goes beyond that. My respect and appreciation for the earth beneath my feet relates to an awareness that good soil is the secret to success with most horticultural pursuits. That said, let’s explore some of the vegetables that grow at or below the soil’s surface.
What’s a Root Vegetable?
Beet. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Vegetable is a general term that refers to any of the plant parts, such as flowers, stems, leaves, seeds, fruits, or roots, that humans or other animals consume. What we call a root crop is a special type of vegetable with an enlarged storage organ that develops from the root tissue of a plant. So, a root vegetable grows underground, and its starchy contents provide essential nutrients for the rest of the plant that grows above ground. This article focuses on four root crops that are easily cultivated in our region (Zone 7a): beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. Perhaps potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams come to your mind as root crops, but technically, they are classified as tuber crops that grow horizontally beneath the surface of the soil. One major difference between tubers and root crops is that tubers can be sliced apart and subsequently replanted to develop a new plant. What about onions, garlic, and shallots that grow underground? Well, those are actually bulbs, although some people consider them a special type of root vegetable.
Why Bother with Root Crops?
First of all, root crops would never be winners in a beauty contest. When you spot them in the produce section of a grocery store, these lumpy, slightly dirty, misshapen specimens look a bit like ugly ducklings that no one really wants. To make matters worse, because root vegetables inhabit the damp, gloomy underworld, they develop tough skins for protection and must be thoroughly cleaned and peeled before being eaten. On top of that, in order to soak up water and moisture below ground, these edible roots typically have hairy extensions that must be removed before they are cooked or consumed. And, if that’s not enough of an inconvenience, beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas are very dense and must be boiled, roasted, or sauteed for quite a while before they soften up enough for your dinner plate. Oops, that sounds like a negative marketing pitch.
Before you cast off these bumpy underground edibles, consider their many favorable features. Root vegetables tend to be relatively inexpensive, and ounce for ounce, they are packed with nutritional benefits. As earth dwellers, root crops absorb plenty of minerals and nutrients directly from the soil around them. Unlike many other colorful, fresh vegetables that have to be consumed fairly quickly before they spoil, beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas can be stored for weeks or months, if given the right conditions (a cool place is best). Although taste preferences vary from person to person, most would agree that root veggies are excellent options that can be prepared in various ways to add tantalizing flavors to any meal. Finally, root vegetables are generally low in calories, cholesterol, and fat, but notably high in dietary fiber. What a great combination! Here’s more about the nutritional value of these root vegetables.
Be Heart Healthy with Beets
Red beets. Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Known as Beta vulgaris in the scientific community, the common beet is a dark red, spherical taproot. Other cultivars of this vegetable are available (e.g., golden beets), but their nutritional value will differ. Red beets contain betaine, an antioxidant pigment that provides important cardiovascular benefits. They are a rich source of folates, manganese, iron, and B vitamins, as well as nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body to help relax and dilate blood vessels. This support for better circulation can lead to lower blood pressure. The potassium found in beets works to help flush out extra sodium from the bloodstream. Some research suggests that beet consumption has general anti-aging effects, such as improved brain function, physical performance, and endurance. Other studies show that beetroot extract can even reduce the growth of cancerous cells. Not to be forgotten are the beet greens that grow above the soil, which are well-known for even greater nutritional benefits. No wonder beets are listed as a “superfood.”
Cancer Protection from Parsnips
Parsnips. Photo: Courtesy of Pixabay.
The scientific name for parsnips is Pastinaca sativa. A parsnip, which is closely related to carrots and parsley, has a long, slender, dense, cream-colored root. Parsnips are rich in vitamin C, which helps resist infection, boosts immunity, and supports healthy connective tissue, teeth, and gums. This root vegetable provides a rich supply of B vitamins, plus vitamins K and E. The antioxidant compounds in parsnips fight inflammation, in addition to offering some resistance to liver disease, colon cancer, and certain types of leukemia. Compared to other vegetables, parsnips boast the highest potassium content, which is a factor in strong bones and muscles. The generally high mineral content of parsnips, including calcium, copper, iron, manganese, selenium, and phosphorous, offers an impressive set of health benefits.
Stay Fit and Trim with Turnips
Turnips. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Turnips, also referred to as Brassica rapa, are thick, round roots with purplish-white coloring on the outside and tough white flesh inside. An excellent source of vitamin C, turnips help fight respiratory infections, such as the common cold, as well as harmful free radicals that play a role in the development of cancer. As a high-fiber cruciferous vegetable, consumption of turnips can aid in digestion and prevent constipation. As a result, they may contribute to reduced obesity rates and lower incidence of stomach and colorectal cancer. Turnips also contain protein and phytonutrients, which are associated with long-term benefits for human health. In addition, turnip greens are rich in vitamin A, B-complex, and C, along with calcium, copper, iron, potassium, and manganese, offering a more potent nutritious punch than the turnip root.
Rutabagas, Low-Calorie Powerhouses
Rutabaga. Photo: Garitzko, Public Domain.
Rutabagas are a hybrid of wild cabbage and turnips. First developed in Sweden, they are often called Swedish turnips, but the proper scientific name is Brassica napus, var.napobrassica. Rutabagas are similar in appearance to turnips, but bigger and slightly more elongated in shape. Light brown on the outside, their inner flesh is golden yellow, with a taste that’s noticeably sweeter than turnips. Rutabagas are proportionally richer in B-complex vitamins than turnips, but offer a similar high level of vitamin C. They have relatively high amounts of glucosinolates, known to reduce inflammation and decrease the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer (colorectal, prostate, breast). Rutabagas also contain phytonutrients, antioxidants that support eye health. Sufficient consumption may prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
Getting Started with Root Vegetables
Now that you know more about the nutritional value of root crops, I hope you’re inspired to try growing at least one of these vegetables. For success with cultivation, keep the following information in mind. You don’t need a large area, since root crops can be quite productive in a fairly small space. They thrive in full sun, so choose a spot with 6 – 8 hours of sunlight per day. Root crops require a soil pH of 6.0 – 6.8, so you’ll want to get your soil tested and find out how to amend the soil, if needed. If you provide a soil sample, the Virginia Tech Soil Testing Laboratory will conduct a comprehensive analysis and make recommendations for nutrient management (for a fee of $10 – $16). Visit their web site for instructions and required forms: https://www.soiltest.vt.edu/
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Root vegetables prefer loose, well-drained soil with sufficient air penetration. For heavy soil (like typical Virginia clay), consider adding compost or other organic matter. Raised beds work well for root crops because this method reduces soil compaction, allowing the vegetables to grow downward more easily. Raised beds also enable better water management to prevent the soil from being too waterlogged or dried out. Classified as cool weather crops, root vegetables can be planted in early spring, up to 30 days before the last frost date for a summer harvest, or in late July or August for a fall harvest. They tolerate chilly temperatures and can be harvested close to the first frost date in the autumn.
If you choose to fertilize, two pounds of 10-20-10 per 100 square feet for parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas and 10-10-10 for beets can be broadcast onto the soil prior to planting. Moisten the soil to prepare it and then water it every other day until germination for a higher percentage of seeds that sprout. At planting time, read the spacing recommendations on seed packets carefully root crops that are overcrowded may not develop well. Then, be patient, as root vegetables tend to have slow germination rates.
Cultural Practices and Potential Problems
Pull any weeds you notice around seedlings when they are small, or they may become entwined around the roots of developing vegetables, making it difficult to separate them from the crops. Don’t forget to thin out rows of new seedlings, or there will be too much competition for water and nutrients. If plants are too close to each other, root vegetables may fail to thrive or become misshapen. Spacing beets and rutabagas every 4 – 6 inches, and parsnips and turnips every 3 – 5 inches will work well. Consider eating the greens from the plants that you thin out. The leaves of beets and turnips are nutritious and tasty, but wait until the greens are 6 – 8 inches tall.
After seedlings emerge, lay mulch around them to control weeds and keep the soil moist, which will maximize crop yield. However, if the site remains too wet, vegetables can get root rot or decay. Be vigilant about hand weeding to allow the vegetables to thrive as they grow beneath the ground. These root crops have relatively few diseases, but they are subject to blight and downy mildew. Turnips and rutabagas may also get club root. A three or four-year rotation of your crops in the garden area will help to reduce these problems. Possible insect pests to watch for are root maggots on turnips and rutabagas, leaf miners on beets, and rust flies on parsnips.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Harvesting and Storing Root Crops
After all your hard work, be sure to harvest these vegetables at the appropriate time. Root crops left in the ground too long can get pithy and bitter. Beets are ready when they are 1 – 3 inches in diameter (45 – 80 days to maturity). Turnips are ready when 2 – 3 inches in diameter (30 – 60 days to maturity), and rutabagas are ready at 3 – 5 inches in size (80 – 100 days to maturity). Parsnips and rutabagas like chilly weather, which improves their taste. Harvest rutabagas after a couple frosts, but parsnips can remain in the ground throughout the winter, if you mulch them with straw (94 – 120 days to maturity).
After harvesting root vegetables, you can keep them for several weeks or months, as long as they are kept in a cool place (32 – 40 degrees F) with relatively high humidity. Remember to trim the tops off (within ½ inch of the root) before placing them into storage, but don’t wash the crops until you’re ready prepare them for a meal. Note that turnips and rutabagas give off a slight odor, so plan accordingly when choosing where to store them.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Enjoy the Produce
All your hard work raising these crops should lead to some culinary adventures for your mealtime enjoyment. Root vegetables are generally too hard to eat raw, but they can be steamed, boiled, roasted, grilled, or sauteed as a key ingredient in many delicious recipes. For steaming or boiling, peel and prepare beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas just as you would potatoes before mashing them. Roasting or grilling these vegetables will add to their zesty flavor. Slice or cut them up, drizzle with olive oil and your choice of spices, and roast on a baking pan in the oven or in a metal basket on the outdoor grill. You can also saute’ root crops that have been cut into small chunks, but allow sufficient time for them to soften up and then add your favorite spices.
Looking for recipes for your root crops? Check these out:
Enjoy this short video that reviews the benefits of roots crops and how to prepare them: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EjTnc-dL8U
If you haven’t tried growing or preparing root crops before, this might be a great time to dig into something new!
Vegetables usually grow into an unusual shape due to environmental conditions. Damage to one part of the vegetable can cause the growth to slow in that area while the rest grows at the normal rate. When a root vegetable is growing and the tip is damaged, it can sometimes split, forming multiple roots attached at one point. If a plant is in the primordium (embryonic development) stage, damage to the growing vegetable can cause more extreme mutations. 
The unusual shape can also be forced upon the vegetable. In Japan, farmers of the Zentsuji region found a way to grow cubic watermelons by growing the fruits in glass boxes and letting them naturally assume the shape of the receptacle. The square-shaped watermelon was intended to make the melons easier to stack and store, but because the melons must be picked before they are ripe they're inedible the cubic watermelons are also often more than double the price of normal watermelons.  Using similar techniques, growers have also created more complex shapes of watermelon, including dice, pyramids, and faces. 
Root vegetables, especially those such as carrots and parsnips, will naturally grow around or avoid obstacles in the soil such as small stones and other foreign objects to prevent damage to the developing root, resulting in a wide variety of different shapes. 
In the European Union, attempts to introduce legislation prohibiting the sale of misshapen fruit and vegetables were defeated. The proposed "uniform standardisation parameters" would have applied to straight bananas and curved cucumbers, as well as to more extreme cases such as carrots with multiple "legs", or fused fruit. The main concern for opponents of the proposed legislation was the ethical question of the wastage it would have generated if growers were forced to discard up to 20% of their crop, produce that was nutritionally identical to more regularly shaped specimens. 
As of 2015, around 40% of commercially-grown fruits and vegetables are not eaten as they do not meet retailers' cosmetic standards.  In France, the Fruits et légumes moches [fr] campaign aims to encourage the purchase of more unusually shaped vegetables and fruits to combat food waste. 
It is common in some countries to celebrate the diversity of vegetable shapes, with particularly unusual items being entered into competitions. Many of these are judged by the ugliness of the vegetable.  Some organisations run contests in which gardeners enter the largest vegetables that they have grown.  [ dead link ] [ citation needed ]
The popular BBC television programme That's Life! mixed investigative journalism with more lighthearted sections, which included items on unusually shaped vegetables. 
The BBC comedy television programme Blackadder contains several jokes relating to the character Baldrick and his obsession with odd-shaped turnips. The most notable example occurs in the episode "Beer", in which Baldrick discovers a turnip shaped like a "thingy," giving rise to several jokes throughout the episode.