Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden
by Irving H. Baxter of Potsdam, NY
We just finished the first harvesting of the root crops from our raised beds, which means carrots and beets for us. Potatoes are grown in the flat garden, in a totally conventional way. (Onions are also a favorite root crop, but for some reason I consider them in a separate category, although we have begun to harvest them as well.) Due to our strange weather year, they’re coming out a few weeks late but the quality is excellent and the quantity is gratifying. The fabulous production in our raised beds have been cause for comment and the basis for a lot of questions. Let’s see if I can come up with some answers.
Soil texture, composition and fertility are important for all veggies, but perhaps more so with the root crops. Not only is soil the media to provide water, nutrients and support to keep the wind from blowing them away, it also protects and nurtures the edible part directly. It is only common sense that for that part to grow and extend downward, the soil must be conducive to such efforts on the part of the plant. Our raised beds are filled with a motley assortment of soils, compost, manures, organic debris and sand with little uniformity between them. We do rotate the crops around the beds to try to confuse the pests and wee beasties that like to nibble our stuff before we get a chance to, in this case – root maggots. Since the root crops are the first to be seeded each spring, I have my choice of beds to plant them in.
My first criteria is soil texture. After they are amended and mixed, I judge this by slowly pushing my hand into the soil. With a minimum of wiggling, I expect to push it in past my wrist with little effort. If I can’t, that bed needs more sand or friable composts. Withdrawing the hand, I check for muddiness. As I start with a damp bed, I want to see my hand covered with fine grains of soil and sand, not with smeared streaks of clay or silt soil. If it’s just a bit off from my idea, I may amend it with more compost or peat moss, or just try a different bed. If it’s a lot different, I mark that bed for further remediation and try my luck elsewhere.
After the beds are selected, we plant. Most years, this will be around May 1st, but could be two weeks earlier or later depending on conditions of any given year. Time permitting, I like to mix the soil up again with the tiller or spading fork and scoop off the top inch or so and set it aside to sift over the seeds after planting. Like most rebels, I consider rules to be suggestions and disregard the spacing recommendations on the seed packets. For the extreme fertility of the raised beds; we have found a 6-inch row spacing to work just right. I have made a row marker that guides it along the side of the bed, making shallow furrows that distance apart, starting three inches from the side of the bed.
Seeding those microscopic little buggers are well beyond my patience and steadiness of hand, so I rope Beth into doing it for me. She leaves a fairly uniform trickle of seeds, which is much easier to thin later on than my clumps and bare spots would be. If I have the time, we sift the removed soil over the seeds and pat firmly, and wait for them to sprout. Honestly – we rarely take the time to do it that way, so I just pinch the trench walls together over the seeds and pat level. Both ways work.
Then you wait and wait and wait. Time crawls while waiting for carrots to sprout! After an eternity or two, just about the time I decide we got bum seeds and I should replant, the first fine strands of green appear in neat rows. I celebrate with a cup of coffee and settle in for more waiting. (You may conclude that I’m not a patient gardener. You would not be wrong.) In not much more time than it takes for an ice age to pass, the green shoots have sprouted their first true leaves and it’s time for the first thinning. (I’m describing carrots in particular, but we grow cylindra beets, which are managed exactly the same way, for the same reason.)
Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” After the true leaves start forming, I kneel beside the bed and pinch out finger full of the thicker clumps, tossing them between the rows as mulch. (I once tried transplanting them into a new, empty bed. Bad idea! They were twisted and gnarled with umpteen dozen rootlets instead of one straight root. They looked like something grown by Dr. Frankenstein next to a nuclear waste dump. Beets, on the other hand, transplant just fine and I use the thinnings to fill in sparse spots, double crop another bed or fill in a partial bed of other veggies.) I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps. In not much more time than it takes to type this, I have the full 64 feet of rows done in a 4 x 8 foot bed.