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Days Until First Frost

July 1st: It’s Not Too Late to Sow Carrots and Other Root Crops!!

By Jennifer Langille

A short time ago we posted on our Facebook page a picture of a pathetic little carrot with the observation that things don’t always work out as they should.

One of our subscribers commented that this often happens to her, and that the problem was probably her soil.

On reading this, Jennifer leapt into action and wrote this article about growing carrots.  The principles apply to other root vegetables as well.

If you’ve ever seen a time lapse of a seed germinating in soil, you’ll know what a miraculous feat of nature it is.

Carrots, turnips, beets and other vegetables that grow below ground have to undergo a further miraculous journey as they grow and develop deep into the soil.

When you finally harvest your carrots or beets or turnips and remember that they developed from a seed the size of a speck of dust, the wow factor of nature really hits you.

But the wow factor might not be so great if you end up with very small specimens, as our fb subscriber did, or ones that look like this:  

They probably taste as good, but they are definitely smaller!

To succeed, carrots and other root vegetables, including potatoes, require light, fluffy soil, free of heavy lumps, stones or sticks, with excellent drainage so that they can grow freely without any constraint whatsoever.

When I prepare my seed beds for my root crops, I ensure that I am providing just such an environment.  The way I do it is by adding copious amounts of organic matter to my soil. 

Organic matter is material that has come from recently living organisms, and there are many sources: leaves, homemade compost, “duff” (the wonderful material found on the forest floor), rotted animal manures, composted seashell waste or seaweed – even composted tree bark and chipped wood.

Grass Clippings
Forest Duff
Seaweed

Apart from contributing to the perfect soil structure for root vegetables, organic matter also allows water and nutrients to pass freely through the soil and promotes microbial and fungal activity in the soil as well – all essential for feeding the plants.  Because of this, I don’t need to add any fertilizer of any sort at all during the growing season.  The soil does it all.

Optimal organic matter content is between 3 and 8%. In my carrot beds, my recent soil test for organic matter content read 18%!

There are all sorts of warnings against using too much organic matter in the soil, but in the past four years, I have grown an abundance of long, straight, beautiful carrots that I have managed to store successfully until the following spring, so there doesn’t seem to be a problem.   Indeed, a soil scientist friend assures me that my reading is nothing to worry about. 

For me, raised beds are another key component of growing successful root vegetables

Before I had raised beds, I tried to grow root vegetables in my native clay soil. No matter how much organic matter I added, the results were puny and disappointing. Even germination was spotty. 

Some people have more luck with their native soil because it is different everywhere, but for me it didn’t work well for root veg.  I do find though that rhubarb, pole beans, cilantro and scallions flourish there.

By growing my Napoli carrots in raised beds, which are essentially large containers, I have total control over the soil, the water and the nutrients I add, so I can provide the perfect growing environment for them.

And, of course, as the early crops from the raised beds are now being harvested, that real estate becomes available for the carrots.

One tip to simplify growing root vegetables – or any vegetable or flower with small seeds for that matter – is using pelleted seeds. These are coated with a thin layer of clay, they are usually a bright colour so that you can actually see them, and they are big enough that you can handle them individually. 

No more throwing a pinch of miniscule seed onto the soil and then having to thin the seedlings as they appear. Pelleted seed is worth every penny, in my experience.

Maybe there are folks out there who have the time and patience, or actually enjoy thinning seedlings, but not this gardener!

When sowing my carrot seeds, I make long furrows 6” apart and ½” deep and sprinkle a light layer of potting soil in the bottom of each furrow. I want them to have the absolute best chance of germinating and I don’t want the new little roots – the radicles – to encounter any obstacles on their journey down into the soil.   

I then place each seed exactly where it will grow. I space them about 2” apart along the furrows which is closer than recommended on the packet. This maximizes productive space, there is less bare soil to dry out faster, and closer rows mean the foliage shades and keeps the soil cool. 

They are then covered, lightly watered in and the soil is then lightly mulched with grass clippings.  I don’t touch anything again until harvest, which is usually in early December.  

Carrots require consistent moisture to develop well, and pelleted seed needs more moisture than plain seed to germinate. The deeper the raised bed, the better, since there is more soil volume to retain moisture. My beds are 12” deep.

Raised beds, it is true, do dry out more quickly than natural soil, so you have to think about the best way to water everything.

Investing in a drip irrigation system and automatic timer was a game-changer for me. Irrigation systems do take a little fiddling to set up, but I thoroughly enjoy playing plumber and, once it is set up, you forget about it.

I set up the system as soon as the seed is planted and the setting is for 20 minutes of water twice a day. Water gets directed exactly to where plants need it near where the roots are.  Obviously, if there is a lot of rain, I’ll turn it off for a while.

I stop irrigating towards the end of September, since there always seems to be enough rain after that.

The system is very practical and very easy to adjust if needed. Unlike in the case of sprinklers, no water is wasted, and plant leaves aren’t left wet, where fungal and other diseases can develop.   

So there we are:  light fluffy, well-draining soil, pelleted seed and consistent watering:  these are what allow me to produce beautiful carrots!  Aren’t they gorgeous?

Try it now – it’s not too late for the 2024 gardening season!

Jennifer

10 Responses

  1. Hi Jennifer!

    What an informative and well written article. Thank you for the useful info.
    Where do you buy your pelleted seeds. I bought some a few years ago from Johnny’s but the exchange rate and shipping have it prohibitive for me.

    Happy gardening!
    Katie

    1. Hi Katie! Happy to hear you found the article useful. Carrots are one of my faves. I buy my pelleted carrot seeds from Veseys Seeds. I love that they ship super fast, and I always use a discount code for free shipping.
      Jen

  2. Thanks for all the great info and tips on carrots! Interested in hearing about parsnips too! 😊

  3. Hi Jennifer, I did comment positively about your carrot article and asked if you have tips about parsnips. It disappeared . So here I am again😊

    1. Hi Kathleen. Parsnips are one of my very favourite vegetables! I only started growing them a couple of seasons ago and have been pleasantly surprised with the results. I grow parsnips exactly the same way as I grow carrots. They are in my raised beds, which contain soil amended with loads of organic matter (refer to all of the suggestions in the article – it’s mostly a matter of what you can get your hands on.) The amazing thing about parsnips is how they remain unfazed by the freezing and thawing of winter. I left one massive parsnip in the garden over the winter and we ate in in April! Good luck!

  4. Hi Jennifer, great article, thank you! Regarding the soil, I too am blessed with clay and shale in abundance. I’ve tried adding topsoil and landfill compost but have also experienced the micro carrot and big mutant hairy carrot, probably from too much nitrogen. Low N high C organic seems hard for me to access. The forest floor duff you refer to I assume would be deciduous hardwood forest debris with a minimum of spruce needles etc., would that be correct?

    1. Hi Cal. Happy you enjoyed the article. You’re on the right track with adding compost to your soil. Truly, it is hard to add too much. As I referenced in the article, with root crops, I go overboard with the addition of organic matter. Not a light top-dressing or sprinkling! It takes a lot of amending to balance soil structure. And it is not once-and-done. I amend my soil every spring with more compost.
      Regarding duff, my forest is mixed species and has a lot of spruce. It is an unfortunate and heavily perpetuated gardening myth that the needles of coniferous species acidify soil. I use pine needles in abundance as mulch with no ill effects. Spruce, fir or pine needles – especially when composted along with all of the other wonderful material from the forest – are neutralized by the microbial organisms and are an excellent soil amendment.
      I hope this helps!

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