Documents: Special Interest: What we grow to eat:

14 Carat Carrots
by Marion Owen
November 25, 1999

More than anything I grow, carrots give me the most grief. I blame it mostly on the experts who publish gardening books. Their advice contains more warnings than how-to instructions. Rock-free soil, not too much nitrogen, and don't let the soil dry out, they warn. I took it all to heart.

First I prepared the soil by painstakingly removing all rocks‹and I mean every last one of them‹almost to the point of running the soil through my flour sifter. The next rain, however, only and exposed more rocks. Tearing open just one corner of the seed packet so as not to spill anything, I carefully sprinkled the tiny seeds on top of the soil. This can only be done on a wind-less day. A rarity, of course, where I live. Moisten seeds, then cover with a hair's width of fine soil. Then wait.

"They will take 1 to 3 weeks to sprout," the experts say. Weeks! How can anyone wait that long to see results! Did I plant them too deep? Did they dry out? Did I accidentally use seeds from 1988? Did the birds eat the seeds? Did the rain wash them away? It's a wonder I even grow them.

Now with more than a decade of growing seasons behind me, I no longer break out in a cold sweat as carrot-sowing time approaches. I've decided that a carrot's purpose in life is to teach me patience. You can't hurry a carrot.

A HEALTHY RESPECT

A youngster on the planet, carrots deserve our respect. No other vegetable or fruit contains as much carotene as carrots, which the body converts to vitamin A. One of the most popular vegetables, the carrot is also an excellent source of vitamins B and C.

Carrots as we know them today, didn't exist 150 years ago. The carrot came into being thanks to the efforts of French horticulturist, Vilmorin-Andrieux. Working with the common wildflower Queen Anne's lace, he cultivated and selected plants over a 4-year period, finally producing a thick, bright orange root on the plant.

Like so many valuable food plants, the carrot is a biennial (a plant that completes its life cycle in two years), and stores in its first year what it is going to use in its second to produce seed. We interrupt its life cycle by gobbling it up in the first year before it has time to grow to maturity.

14 CARAT TIPS FOR CARROTS

To reach maturity, though, carrots demand a few things. Here are 14 tips to help you get 14 karat carrots:

    1) Shapely Seedlings: Carrots come in 4 basic shapes; something for every soil type. Golf ball-type carrots (Thumbelina) and the slightly longer Chantenays are good for containers and heavy soils. Nantes, Imperator and Danvers (and Danvers Half Long) grow up to 7 inches long and are suitable for most other soils. If color is an issue, Danvers Half Long and Royal Chantenay are bright orange, while Scarlet Nantes and Blaze (an Imperator) are deep orange‹almost red. Most catalogs provide helpful carrot how-to information.

    2) A Stone'S Throw: It's true, success with carrots depends on loose, deep, rock-free soil. Before you reach for the flour sifter though, take out the worst of the stones and simply turn in plenty of compost, well-aged manure, fine kelp (if you're fortunate to have access to this), or commercial peat moss. Rake or hoe the soil to remove any stubborn clumps. Raised beds are best for carrots.

    3) Trouble-Free Sowing: Carrot seeds are tiny: a teaspoon holds almost 2,000 seeds. Trying to sow them "evenly-spaced" can present a challenge, as they seems to want to fly every which way. One way to get a handle on sowing is to empty the seed packet onto a sheet of stiff paper. Pinch the paper along one side to form a creased wedge and tap the seeds out.

    Another solution is to buy pre-made seed tapes that give you perfectly spaced rows of seeds, or mix up your own seed tape "goop". Add cornstarch to a cupful of water (one teaspoon at a time) until it resembles Cream of Rice cereal (before it cools). Clean out a shampoo bottle and fill it with the mixture. Go out to the garden and squeeze out lines of carrots!

    4) Soil To Cover: After sowing your carrot seeds, cover them with a 1/4 to 1/2-inch layer of loose soil, sand or volcanic ash.

    5) Radishes To The Rescue: If you have a hard time remembering exactly where you planted those carrots, mix in quick-growing radish seeds to mark the rows.

    6) Keep 'Em Wet: Spinkle the soil gently with water so the seeds germinate. No water, no seedlings. If the soil dries out completely or forms a crust between waterings, gradually remoisten the bed over a period of days; a sudden drenching may wash the seeds away.

    7) Thin, Thin, Thin: Thin to 1 inch apart when the tops are about 2 inches high. Be ruthless. Crowded carrots will be oddly-shaped and dwarfed. Thin again 10 to 14 days later to over 4 inches apart.

    8) Cat-Free Carrots: A raised bed of fluffy soil means only one thing to a cat. To a dog it's a wonderful place to dig and roll in. My neighbors are well aware that loose pets are not welcome in my garden, or near it, for that matter. To keep 4-leggeds out, cover your beds with wire fencing, chicken wire, or fishing net. Wooden stakes driven in the corners of your beds and covered with overturned cans work as good supports.

    9) Ash And You Shall Receive: The soil in my area of Alaska is primarily made up of a sandy volcanic ash. As the carrot seedlings mature, I sprinkle ash, sand, soil or other mulch around the plants to maintain an even moisture level and reduce weed problems. Carrots that "shoulder" or push above the soil level become green and bitter, and are easy prey for slugs and birds.

    10) Fertilize With Care: Young seedling benefit from a foliar spray made from PlanTea (see end of article) kelp solution or compost tea. As they become more carrot-like, top-dress with old compost or well-aged manure. NOTE: Avoid high-nitrogen sources such as fresh manure and fish fertilizers as they cause new roots to "burn off" and fork.

    11) Succession Planting: As a root crop, carrots may be planted between rows of celery, lettuce, spinach, or mustard greens.

    12) Campanion Plants: Carrots do well alongside most plants, especially chives and sage, with the exception of dill and coriander which should NOT be planted together as they tend to cross-pollinate‹important if you're saving your own seed.

    13) Culinary Carrots: The following Pickled Carrot Recipe is a tasty and unique way to serve carrots. Try them as an appetizer, salad garnish or side dish with soups, they're one of the best way to use fresh carrots and have them for the winter.

    Pickled Carrot Sticks

      2 lbs. carrots, peeled, thinly sliced
      3/4 cup vinegar
      3/4 cup water
      1/2 cup sugar
      1 tsp. mixed whole pickling spices

    Cook the carrots in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring vinegar, water, sugar and spices to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Drain the carrots and pack in hot, sterilized pint jars, leaving 1/2-inch headroom. Cover with the hot pickling liquid, seal and process for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Makes 4 pints.

    14) Include The Kids & Make A Carrot Necklace: Wash some carrots and slice them 1/4-inch thick. Thread a heavy duty needle with dental floss and slip the carrot slices onto the floss by pushing the needle into the center of each slice.

    Once you've strung enough carrots, tie the ends together to form a necklace. Lay it on paper in a dark place with ventilation, making sure the slices don't touch each other. As they dry, they turn into wrinkled beads. Drying takes about a week.

Garden Wisdom:

Many things grow in the garden that were never sowed there. ‹Chinese proverb)

Want to have fun gardening with kids? Make a hairy Mr. (or Mrs.) Potato Head! Cut one end off a potato and place it upright on a plate. With a spoon or paring knife, carve out an indentation on the other end and fill it with potting soil. Sprinkle the soil with grass seed and keep it moist. Put it in the window and soon you'll have long, green hair you can trim, tie with a bow or braid! Decorate Mr. Potato Head with slices of carrot, radish or turnip, or with costume jewelry and buttons.

Master gardener and teacher Marion Stirrup of Kodiak, Alaska provides gardening tidbits, recipes, giggles and more in her newsletter, The PlantPress. Marion is also President of Plantamins, Inc., happy makers of PlanTea, the organic fertilizer in convenient tea bags. Visit her web site at www.plantea.com or e-mail: marion@ptialaska.net

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