Gardening Tips: Getting to the Root of Things

Editor’s NoteThe Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written. This column last appeared on 19 August 2020.


What to do this week

This week, we are still on harvesting, and mid-season busy-ness. I am now digging up my early variety potatoes — the time is right when the plants are starting to yellow and die back. So you can finally stop picking potato bugs and start picking potatoes!

In Cape Breton, you don’t always get a choice of whether it is wet or dry, but try to dig your potatoes when the ground is dry. This is important, because you don’t want to wash your potatoes before storage. If the ground is dry you can just brush off the excess soil. If they are wet and really grubby, you can clean them with a gentle brush. Do not hose them down. I don’t expect you to eat your potatoes with all that dirt on them, of course, but do store them that way. It helps to protect them and prevents all the living things that are in the cleaning water from harming them during storage.

Beets, ready for storage. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Beets, ready for storage. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Initially, store your potatoes for a few days on trays, or in boxes, at room temperature. Cover them with a sheet or cardboard, or something that will block the light. Light will make them turn green, and that green is toxic. This initial storage at room temperature will allow the skin to toughen up a bit. It will also help them to survive storage intact. After this initial storage time, put them in their final storage place. Your root cellar will not be cold quite yet, but it will be soon, sorry to remind you.

Don’t store your potatoes in plastic bags, as this doesn’t allow them to breathe and they need to breathe. I find an old flour bag, or any sort of strong paper bag, is perfect, blocking the light and allowing the potatoes to breathe.

If you planted carrots in the spring, you will be starting to harvest them soon, too. You can wash carrots before storage, it doesn’t seem to bother them like it bothers potatoes. Actually, carrots can become discolored if you don’t wash them, so better to wash.

Don’t cut the carrot tops completely — leave a bit, as it will actually keep the carrot alive in storage. The same goes for beets, which you will also likely be harvesting now. Leave just a bit of the stem to help keep the plant alive and healthy. Some people twist the excess carrot tops off, and beet tops as well. This could leave you with squished or otherwise damaged stems. Better to cut them with scissors for storage.

(You may not have realized that your stored root vegetables are still alive during storage, but they are. If you keep a bit of the healthy stem and the root, you can actually take a big bite out of a beet, plant what’s left in spring, and it will grow!)

Your tomato and bean plants may also be starting to look a little ragged, but this is natural. This is not the time to fertilize them. They are coming to the end of their life cycle, and will produce as many tomatoes and beans as possible in an attempt to reproduce. If you are concerned about yellowing leaves at this point, and feed the plant, it will keep growing green and not produce as much food.

An exception to not fertilizing now would be your basil plants. When basil starts to go to seed, you will no longer have lush, green leaves for pesto. Give them a bit of fertilizer. This will cut their reproduction tendencies and keep your basil green for a while yet, giving you a chance to get lots of pesto in the freezer.

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.




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