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Edible roots for the community garden

Photos and story by Russ Grayson

Root crops are a concentrated source of dietary carbohydrates and proteins. They are among humanity’s oldest crops.

Edible roots are suitable in community gardens in:

  • shared gardening space for root crops which grow as spreading crops
  • larger allotments of a size to cope with spreading crops
  • smaller allotments in which root crops with a shrub growth form, such as potato, can be grown.

Root crops come in both annual and perennial forms (perennials are those taking longer than two years to produce a crop).
For community gardeners, the root crops offer:

  • a concentrated source of nutritional, carbohydrate-rich ‘energy food’
  • a source of botanical interest where the less common species are grown
  • a way to make use of unused garden space.


Some of these root crops are difficult to find in nurseries. In Australia, you may be able to mail order them from:

Green Harvest
PO Box 92
PH: 07 54352699
FAX: 07 54999791
FREECALL: 1800 681014

Ask for their catalog. Some crops are available only at particular times of the year.


  • annual root crops can be planted in the annual garden bed or allotment, depending on size
  • root crops form one of the components of a crop rotation system with leaf, fruiting and leguminous crops
  • in the southern hemisphere, locate the annual vegetable garden on the northern (sunward) side so as to maximise exposure to sunlight.

To keep your root crops healthy:

  • protect them from strong and cold winds
    provide plenty of water but do not over-water
    monitor them for plant diseases and insect pests
    maintain soil fertility by adding compost and mulch.

Notes on the plant description

  • growth form: sizes given are for mature plants and are approximate only – the size a plant will grow to depends on microclimate, watering, soil fertility and the incidence of insects pests and plant diseases
  • botanic name: these are the names botanists and horticulturists use to identify plants; sometimes, a single plant will have more than one common name, leading to difficulty in identifying it; there is only one botanic name so it is a more reliable way to identify a plant.
  • spp: abbreviation for ‘species’ which denotes a particular plant variety
  • family: a larger grouping of plants, all with some characteristic in common, into which plants are classified
  • propagation: how plants are started
  • vegetative reproduction is started from a cutting or a sprouting root such as a rhizome or tuber.

Centre of diversity: the region where the plant originated and from where it spread.


Botanic name: Daucus carota
Family: Apiaceae
Growth form: tapering tuber of variable length depending on variety.

  • the plant produces the tuber in its first year
  • flowers and produces seed in the second year
  • orange or yellow coloured tuber.

Edible part: tuber eaten raw or cooked.

There are many varieties of carrot, varying in size and colouration.

  • from seed
  • new plants can be sprouted by cutting of top of tuber and waiting until it sprouts, then planting.

Centre of diversity:

  • probably eastern Mediterranean
  • grown in imperial Rome and ancient Turkey
  • yellow and purple varieties grown in Europe until the seventeenth century when the orange carrot was developed in Holland.


Botanic name: Stachys affinis
Family: Labiatae

Growth form:

  • annual
  • stiff stem to around a metre grows from tuber.

Edible part: tuber.


  • propagated vegetatively from tuber
  • planted in winter in warm temperate climates.

Centre of diversity: China, recorded in Europe in 1882.

DAIKON and other radishes

The daikon tuber.

Daikon is a member of the diverse radish group of plants that vary in:

  • shape — cylindrical to spherical
  • size — from as small as approximately two centimetres diameter
  • colour — white, red, black, purple, yellow – depending on variety
  • growth period — from weeks to months.

Botanic name: Raphanus sativus (daikon)
Growth form (daikon): white root to around 30 centimetres long and 4 centimetres in diameter.
Edible part: tuber; edible raw or cooked.


  • daikon is a slower growing variety of radish maturing in warm temperate coastal regions of Easteern Australia in late autumn
  • the size of the tuber yields plenty of food
  • plant smaller fast-growing radish varieties successionally every two weeks.

Propagation: from seed.

Use in garden: plant as catch crop between slower growing vegetables to make use of garden space until slower growing plants fully occupy the space.

Centre of diversity:

  • Asia
  • recorded in use in Egypt from 2980BP (before present)
  • ancient crop in Japan.
The popular and common variety of radish produces a quick crop in the community garden and can be planted while waiting for longer-term seedlings to grow.


Varieties: greater galangal; lesser galangal.
Botanic name:Languas galanga
Family: Ziniberaceae; same family as ginger.

Growth form:

  • similar to ginger
  • leaves grow from stiff stem
  • knobbly rhizomes grow in soil.

Edible part: rhizome

  • can be dried or grated fresh
  • used in curry and satay sauce
  • used as spice to flavour food.

Cultivation: vegetative – sprouting rhizome planted.

Centre of diversity:

  • South East Asia, southern China
  • occurs wild in jungle clearings and is also cultivated.


Botanic name: Allium sativum

Growth form:

  • similar in appearance to onion
  • bulb enclosed in a papery, whitish/ purplish skin.

Edible part:

  • bulb
  • used as food flavour
  • medicinal uses


  • sprouting clove planted
  • provide warm microcllimate.

Centre of diversity:

  • Central Asia, China
  • in use since ancient times in India, Egypt, China.


Botanic name: Zingiber officinale
Family: Ziniberaceae

Growth form:

  • long, narrow leaves grow from stiff stem
  • rhizomes (the root structure) form underground cluster
  • grows to approximately one metre in height.

Edible part:

  • knobbly rhizome used as spice to flavour food
  • rhizome can be dried and grated
  • eaten raw or used in cooking
  • used as a tea
  • medicinal uses.

Ginger is a tropical/ subtropical perennial.

  • shade tolerant
  • prefers a hot, frost-free environment
  • grows in a large container.


  • vegetative — sprouting rhizome planted
  • prefers moist, well-drained soil.

Centre of diversity: South East Asia.


Botanic name: Helianthus tuberous
Family: Compositae; same family as sunflower and yacon.

Growth form:

  • similar to sunflower
  • tall, single stem to around a metre in height, sometimes more, with wide, soft laves
  • yellow flowers like, but smaller than, sunflower
  • produces cluster of rhizomes in late autumn/ early winter in warm temperate coastal climates of Eastern Australia.

Edible part: rhizome

  • cooked as vegetable
  • used in soup
  • edible raw.


  • frost hardy
  • tolerates a variety of soils
  • rhizomes ready to harvest when foliage dies
  • rhizomes may be stored in soil for limited period
  • high productivity in good conditions.

Propagation: vegetative; from rhizome.

Centre of diversity:

  • North America
  • cultivated and collected from wild by Indian peoples.


Also known as: New Zealand yam; cuiba (Venezeula); iribia (Columbia)
Botanic name: Oxalis tuberosa
Family: Oxalidaceae

Growth form:

  • low-growing annual bush
  • forms clusters of red tubers to 10cm long

Edible part: tubers eaten after cooking.


  • as for potato
  • fertile soil, regular watering.

Propagation: from tuber.

Centre of diversity:

  • Andeas region of South Ameica
  • staple crop of Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia
  • introduced into New Zealand from Chile in 1869 where it is now known as ‘New Zealand yam’.


Botanic name: Allium sepa
Family: Alliaceae

Growth form:

  • annual bulb
  • colour variable with variety — white, red (used raw in salads), brown, purple
  • shape variable — spherical, oval, elongated.

Edible part: bulb; eaten raw or cooked.


  • from seed
  • plant in sunny, well-drained position.

Centre of diversity:

  • probably Central Asia
  • cultivated by ancient Egyptians at least as far back as 3400BP (before present).


Botanic name: Pastinaca sativa
Family: Apiaceae

Growth form: Parsnip is biennial; the plant produces the tuber in its first year, then flowers and produces seed in the second.

  • tapering tuber
  • white colouration
  • there area number of varieties of parsnip that vary in size.

Edible part: tuber — eaten cooked.

Cultivation: from seed new plants can be sprouted by cutting of top of tuber, waiting until it sprouts, then planting

Centre of diversity:

  • Mediterranean region
  • grown by ancient Roman and Greek civilisations.


Botanic name: Solanum tuberosum
Family: Solanaceae (tomato family)
Growth form: small annual shrub.
Edible part: tuber— boiled, fried, roasted, steamed.


  • there are numerous varieties of potato
  • high productivity achievable in good growing conditions
  • plant in well drained soil.


  • vegetative — from sprouting tuber
  • from seed potato from a nursery.

Insect pests: scab; viruses; aphids; slugs
Diseases: potato blight.

Centre of diversity:

  • Central and South America
  • potato is an ancient crop of Indian cultures
  • recorded in Europe for the first time in the 1560s.


Another common name: kumara (Polynesia).
Botanic name: Ipomoea batatas

Growth form:

  • perennial
  • scrambling vine
  • heart shaped or lobed leaves
  • flesh colour of tuber variable – whitish, purplish, yellow.

Edible part:

  • tuber — boiled, fried, roasted, steamed
  • tips of young shoots cooked.


  • prefers warm conditions
  • tolerates light shade
  • plant as a ground cover in the orchard
  • use as perennial living mulch in orchard or elsewhere.


  • sprouting tuber planted
  • from tip cuttings

Centre of diversity:

  • South America
  • cultivated for thousands of years in South East Asia, Pacific Islands and New Zealand.


The large leaves of the taro, some of which are eaten after cooking as a vegetable.

Also known as:
•    cocoyam
•    dasheen
•    edo
•    elephant’s ear.

Botanic name: Alocasia esculanta
Family: Araceae

Growth form:

  • large, pointed, broad leaves grow from tuber on stiff stems
  • grows to around one metre in height depending on type.

Edible part:

  • large round or elongated tuber
  • leaf
  • tuber can be made into flour.


  • do not eat any part of the taro plant raw
  • cook all parts well to destroy irritating calcium oxylate crystals
  • Joy Larkom (Oriental Vegetables, 1991, John Murray, London) says when cooking the young taro leaf to boil twice, discarding the water to remove the acrid flavour.


  • grows in wet tropical/subtropical/warm temperate climates
  • prefers moist soil
  • tolerates medium shade or grows in full sun
  • will grow in mud
  • grows in shallow water
  • grown ‘wet’ in paddies in Asia or ‘dry’ in soil.


  • by planting the sprouting tuber
  • cut off top of tuber with shoot then plant.

Centre of diversity:

  • probably India
  • found throughout the wet tropics — South East Asia, Pacific Islands, PNG, China
  • an ancient crop in use for at least 7000 years.


Botanic name: Carcuma domestica
Family: Ziniberaceae; same family as ginger.

Growth form:

  • similar to ginger
  • leaves grow from stiff stem
  • elongated rhizomes in soil.

Edible part: rhizome used as spice to flavour food; dried or grated.
Cultivation/propagation: vegetative — sprouting rhizome planted.
Centre of diversity: South East Asia.


Jeff Michaels of Green Harvest with his first crop of yacon.

Botanic name: Polymnia sonchifolia
Family: Compositae

Growth form:

  • an annual to 2 metres resembling the sunflower
  • soft, heart-shaped leaves along a stiff stem
  • a cluster of underground tubers is formed; moist flesh is off-whote to pale brown in colour
Young yacon plants with their large, soft leaves.

Edible part: tuber eaten raw or cooked
Cultivation: high productivity in good growing conditions.
Propagation: vegetative – from the tuber.
Centre of diversity: Peru — grown by Incas.

The root cluster of yacon can yield a prolific harvest.


Botanic name: Dioscoria spp
Growth form:

  • scrambling vine of variable length
  • heart-shaped leaves
  • tuber size varies with species.

Edible part: tuber; cooked.
Cultivation: can be used as a trellis crop or left to scramble over the ground.

  • by sprouting tuber
  • from tip cuttings.

Centre of diversity:
Asia — an ancient crop collected in the past as wild harvest and now cultivated
Australia — varieties collected by Aboriginies as wild harvest.

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