Archive for Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Carrot’s reputation undeserved

March 26, 2008

One vegetable that can be directly seeded into the garden this time of year is the carrot, which has developed - unfairly, I might add - a reputation for being difficult to grow.

My detractors would argue carrot seeds are tiny and difficult to handle. The seeds also can be slow to germinate. In gardens in northeast Kansas that have a good deal of clay in the soil, carrots may emerge from the ground at harvest with a slightly gnarled appearance, as if they had been butting up against concrete for several months. Clay soil will do that to you.

But all of these problems are mere trifles, which can be dealt with fairly easily. The reward is being able to grow a crop that is about as low-maintenance as they come. A little bit of weeding, the usual watering and mulching and - voila! - you've got carrots in June. Because carrots grow underground, bugs aren't a concern. They don't get diseases. What's not to love?

Well, hard soil can indeed be a problem. Carrots don't mind tired soil, but the strain of growing in clay can turn them ugly. If you have a raised bed, plant them there. If you don't, you'll need to make sure you till deeply. A good trick is to make a few passes over the carrot bed with the tiller, then dig down below the tilled soil with a fork and lift up the next layer of hard soil. Then pass over the row with the tiller again.

If the soil tends to pack when it dries, liberally spread sand over the carrot bed and till it under.

To fix the germination problem, you'll need to provide insulation for the planting site. First, draw a furrow in the soil and wet it down. You'll want to be sowing seeds into moist soil. Have a roll of kitchen plastic wrap on hand when you plant.

The naysayers are correct that the tiny seeds are a problem. If you don't have a seed syringe, you will need to disperse the seeds along the furrow using your fingers or a pair of tweezers, being careful not to damage the seeds. The goal will be to pinch as few at a time as possible. Ideally, the seeds would be spaced an inch apart initially.

Once you have the seeds sowed in the furrow, sprinkle a light dusting of dry soil over the seeds and cover the furrow with a sheet of the plastic wrap. Anchor the plastic with a brick to lock it down at one end of the row, then pull the plastic down the row as if you were covering a long casserole. Tear it off and anchor the loose end with another brick. Anchor the sides with additional bricks.

This may be the best gardening tip I have ever read in a book. I believe it came from Joseph R. Thomasson's "Growing Vegetables in the Great Plains," which I have plugged in this column before. While carrots prefer to begin their growth cycle in cool weather, their seeds need heat, preferably moist heat, to germinate. The plastic wrap lets sunlight in but incubates the seeds.

After germination and when the tops are an inch high, remove the plastic. You'll thin the starts down to about 5 inches apart. You don't want them to be seeded so thickly that pulling up one seedling will damage the roots of one next door.

When the carrot tops are about 3 inches high, weed the row and apply a light layer of straw mulch. The carrot tops will feed the roots by poking through the mulch to get sunlight. As the weather warms, apply a few more layers of mulch to keep the soil cool.

You'll be able to check the progress of your carrots by taking a peek at the shoulders of the roots, which will be just below the surface.

When the carrots reach the width you want, loosen the soil around them, and carefully dig them up.

It's that easy.

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