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.
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.
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.
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.
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.