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Old-time rutabagas back en vogue in vegetable world

Rutabagas are a root crop that grow well in Midwestern states. Special to The Forum

Q: Is it possible to grow rutabagas in Minnesota? We love rutabagas, but the ones in the stores are often stringy and old tasting. How do you plant them? - Ayn Locklear, Glyndon, Minn.

A: Rutabagas are a root crop that was more popular during the days when every homestead had a basement root cellar, and they grow very nicely in Minnesota, North Dakota and other Midwestern states. Like many nutritious vegetables, rutabagas are enjoying newfound popularity.

Rutabagas were developed in the Middle Ages and are thought to be a cross between turnips and cabbages. They're similar to turnips, but sweeter. Seed is readily available on many seed racks and from mail-order companies.

Rutabagas are a long-season crop that can be planted between May 1-15, and they are best left in the ground until harvested in late fall. Sow seed thinly in rows, then thin plants to about six inches apart before seedlings become crowded, as rutabaga roots grow quite large and require space to develop.

Rutabagas can be harvested when they reach softball-size and can be enjoyed during the summer, or left in the ground for fall harvest and storage. They store for months in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or in root cellars at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Q: Is there a way to have our garden soil tested? Is it good to add compost every year? - Mary Johnson, Moorhead.

A: North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota both have soil testing labs with websites that describe procedures for submitting samples. Soil testing is highly recommended, especially for new gardens, to determine the basic nutrient content in the existing soil. Soil testing can also help established gardens identify nutrient deficiencies if plants are growing poorly. The analysis of the soil is usually accompanied by recommendations for improving the soil, if additions are required.

Compost, and other organic materials like peatmoss or bagged manure, are wonderful additions to garden soil every year, mellowing heavy clay soil and improving the water-holding ability of light, sandy soil. Because organic material seems to be easily swallowed up by the existing soil, tilling in a two or three-inch layer annually helps maintain the organic component.

Q: I see 'starter fertilizers' advertised for applying when planting. Are they beneficial? - C. Thompson, Bismarck, N.D.

A: Starter fertilizers are mild doses of fertilizer that are easily absorbed by the roots of young plants and contain plentiful phosphorous, the middle number of the three-numbered fertilizer analysis on a label, as well as nitrogen and potassium.

Starter fertilizers are especially beneficial when planting vegetables transplants like tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and others, plus all bedding plants like petunia, marigold, geraniums and zinnia. Providing readily available nutrition helps roots grow into the surrounding soil more quickly, resulting in faster, stronger growth. Newly planted perennial flowers also benefit from starter fertilizer.

Some fertilizers are marketed as starter fertilizers. Others, such as the popular Miracle Gro can be applied at half strength. Follow label directions for application advice.

If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler at ForumGrowingTogether@hotmail.com. All questions will be answered, and those with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.

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