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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: Farming Systems & Approaches

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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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.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

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It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

LittleField Notes Hay

LittleField Notes: Hay

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Farming never fails to dish up one lesson in humility after another. Despite having all the weather knowledge the information-age has to offer, farmers will still lose hay to the rain, apple blossoms to frost, winter wheat to drought… If we are slow to learn humility in Nature’s presence we can be sure that another lesson is never far off.

Horse Farming and Holistic Management

Horse Farming and Holistic Management

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Holistic Management was developed by Allan Savory who was a wildlife and ranch biologist in Africa who was concerned that the advice he could give farmers didn’t work in the real environment and even when the advice was good it wouldn’t get implemented. He developed a program which helps farms create a clear Holistic Goal and then use the farms resources to move toward the goal while being ecologically sustainable.

TMAHK Tripod Haymaking

The Milk and Human Kindness: What I’ve Learned of Tri-Pod Haymaking

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I have no doubt that when the time comes we are going to need to know how to make hay this way, whether it be this Proctor Tripod method, or the French rack method illustrated in André Voisin’s great book “Grass Productivity” or the Scandinavian “Swedish Rider” method of tightly strung wire “fences” for hay to dry on. Each method has its pros and cons, and it’s my belief that the “Swedish Riders” is the easiest to learn and the Proctor Method may be the most difficult.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

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Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

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.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

LittleField Notes: Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

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To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

Cayuse Vineyards

Small Farm, USA: Cayuse Vineyards

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How did the grape find itself here on the outskirts of Milton? If you ask one man, Christophe Baron, the answer is simple. “It’s the cobblestone. (The ground) reminds me of home”. For Christophe, home refers to France and the stone littered earth from which many famous French wines grow. Hailing from a family of vigneron champenois, Mr. Baron came upon this corner of the state by chance, saw its signature geology, and decided to establish his domaine right here in northeast Oregon.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Forestry

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After 70 plus years of industrial logging, the world’s forests are as degraded and diminished as its farmlands, or by some estimates even more so. And this is a big problem for all of us, because the forests of the world do much more than supply lumber, Brazil nuts, and maple syrup. Farmlands produce food, a basic need to be sure, but forests are responsible for protecting and purifying the air, water and soil which are even more basic.

Cultivating Questions Going Single

Cultivating Questions: Going Single

Going single did not occur to us until we began receiving questions from prospective teamsters who felt it would be more manageable and economical to get started with a single horse than a team. After 29 years of market gardening with two or more horses, our impetus to try out one-horse farming was not a question of management or economy, but due to the radically diverging horse temperaments on our farm.

Back to the Land

Back to the Land

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Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014. In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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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.

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