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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

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.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Closing furrows over Carrot seeds.

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.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Perfectly thinned carrots.

As with disciplining children, it’s a traumatic experience for all involved. The stems and foliage will wilt and droop on the survivors and look most pitiful. Hugs & kisses soothe children after a rebuke, but it doesn’t impress carrots or beets much, if any. They do seem to appreciate a nice long drink of water-soluble fertilizer. We use Miracle-Gro, but manure tea would likely work as well for those wishing to remain organic. For the next two weeks, just monitor the water content of the soil and pinch out any bold weeds that try to get started. Carrots seem to need a lot of moisture and I never really let them dry out at this stage. This is also when the weeds are most troublesome, and I run a weed patrol almost every day. It only takes a few minutes at this point to pluck out the weeds, but leaving them until later might allow roots to develop that would disrupt the carrots when pulled at a later date.

Weather has a big effect on the timing of the next thinning, but whenever the greens get up to three inches tall, I settle down for a more intense look at the rows. My goal at this point is one healthy, strong seedling every inch or so in the row. There will be spots where I’m still pulling out clumps of them, but mostly I’m selectively pulling the weakest so the best can grow. Due to spacing considerations, I might end up taking a few stronger ones if it will let two weaker ones have a better chance. I’m also looking for straightness at this point. There will be a few stems growing out at an obvious angle, and will be removed regardless of size or strength. Another dose of fertilizer, and leave them be for a couple weeks, other than water and weeding as required.

The rest of the garden will be all in before you get back to the carrots and/or beets. If everything has gone according to plans (and when does that ever happen?), the foliage will be 6-10 inches tall, and the roots starting to develop well. This will be the first thinning that will produce edible roots. Ours will typically be 3 to 4” long and about 1/2” across. They are a pain to peel, but by holding them by the attached greens and giving them a brisk scrubbing under running water with a new stainless steel scrubber, it’s not too bad. They sure are tasty, tender and a real treat.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Thinnings from 12’ and 8’ beds. Alex on left and Andy on right.

As I start the thinning, I observe root size, uniformity, and spacing within the row. If everything is pretty uniform (rare), I simply remove two, leave one, remove two, leave one. If the size and spacing varies quite a bit (as is usually the case) I simply work my way through the rows, pulling the smaller ones and leaving the bigger roots, depending on spacing. When I get done, only the largest plants remain, semi-evenly spaced about 3 inches apart. To give them even more room, I also try to stagger the plants between rows so they do not line up evenly – effectively giving them just a tad more growing space.

Things change with the next thinning – about two weeks later. (Around mid July.) Instead of the weaker ones, I’m now taking the biggest. These will typically be 6 inches or longer, with a nicely bulked up root shoulder. (For beets, I simply go by diameter, which I expect to be about 1 1/2” average.) The smaller plants get left for a few more weeks to more fully develop and to spread out the harvest a bit. We do the fertilizer thing again, but add another step. I run a finger through the damp soil midway between each row and Beth brings out the seeds and we sow another crop between the existing rows. By the time they germinate and need the space and light, the last of the first crop has been harvested.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Final crop from 8’ bed.

About two weeks later, I go through and take that crop, leaving only a few of the puniest for fresh eating and salad garnish. The baby sprouts growing between the old rows gets its first thinning at that time, and the cycle repeats. This is how we get three bushels of carrots (estimated total of both crops plus edible thinnings) from a 4 x 8 foot raised bed. The photo shows our two youngest boys with the results of the third thinning from two beds. The bigger pile was from a 4 x 12 foot bed, and the smaller one was a 4 x 8 foot bed. The other carrot photo is the final harvest of the second crop from the 8-foot bed. These photos were from 2000, which was as close to perfect weather-wise as you can get. Not every year is quite so good, but my carrot and beet beds are always awesome.

I’ve spoken mainly of carrots, but the cylindra beets are handled about the same way. The photo shows the last thinning before harvest – 67 pounds of beets from the thinning with another 80 pounds a couple weeks later. All from two 4 x 8 foot raised beds. I neglected to record what the second crop was from those beds, but I think it was just a bit less. My best recollection would be 250 pounds of beets from 64 square feet of bed space.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

67 lbs. of beet thinnings from two 4 x 8’ beds.

All well and good, you might say, but I don’t have raised beds and no plans to go to that amount of bother to build them. Valid points, the raised beds only offer the advantage of easing back strain during thinning and weeding and a little better moisture control. The same principles of management can be used in a flat garden, starting with soil amendments. If I were going to grow carrots in a flat, I would use a round point shovel to remove the existing soil to a depth of about 12 inches, by the width of the shovel, for as long a row as you desire. Pick out ALL the rocks from the removed soil (I sift my raised bed soil through a 3/4” screen,) add compost, sand, peat moss, aged manure – whatever you have to improve the tilth and fertility of the soil. Return the soil to the trench, firming it down, but not packing it tightly. It will be slightly elevated if you added many amendments, which will allow for settling. Plant a double row of seeds down the bed, about 6 inches apart and 3 inches from the sides. Under most conditions, this should yield results equal to our raised beds.

Good luck to all. Let me know if you try my methods and how they work for you.

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Farm Manure

Farm Manure

Naturally there is great variation in manure according to the animals it is made by, the feeding and bedding material, and the manner in which it is kept. Different analyses naturally shows different results and the tables here given serve only as a guide or index to the various kinds. The manure heap, by the way, is no place for old tin cans, bottles, glass, and other similar waste material.

Onion Culture

Onion Culture

The essential requirements of a soil upon which to grow onions profitably are a high state of fertility, good mechanical condition, properties – that is, if it contains sufficient sand and humus to be easily worked, is retentive of moisture and fertilizers, and is capable of drainage – all other requirements can be met.

Walki Biodegradable Mulching Paper

New Biodegradable Mulching Paper

Views of any and all modern farming stir questions for me. The most common wonder for me has been ‘how come we haven’t come up with a something to replace plastic?’ It’s used for cold frames, hotbeds, greenhouses, silage and haylage bagging and it is used for mulch. That’s why when I read of this new Swedish innovation in specialized paper mulching I got the itch to scratch and learn more. What follows is what we know. We’d like to know more. LRM

Marketable Cover Crops

Marketable Cover Crops

by:
from issue:

Our cover crops have to provide the benefits of smothering weeds, improving soil structure, and replenishing organic matter. They also have to produce some income. For these purposes, we use turnips, mustard and lettuce within our plant successions. I broadcast these seeds thickly on areas where cover crops are necessary and let them do their work.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

by:
from issue:

After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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from issue:

The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

What We've Learned From Compost

What We’ve Learned From Compost

by:
from issue:

Our compost piles will age for at least a year before being added to the garden. We have learned that the slow aging is more beneficial to the decomposition process as well as not losing nearly as much nitrogen to off-gassing as happens with the hot and fast methods. Another benefit is the decomposition is much more thorough, destroying weed seeds, pathogens and any unwanted chemicals much better in a slower composting setup.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

by:
from issue:

Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Syrup From Oregons Big-Leaf Maple

Syrup From Oregon’s Big Leaf Maple

by:
from issue:

There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington. Five syrup producing species of maples are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Box Elder and the Big-leaf Maple are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Peach

Peach

by:
from issue:

The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

by:
from issue:

Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT