Sunday, June 21, 2009

Contemplating Carrots

“Eat your carrots – they’re good for your eyes.” What mother hasn’t intoned this mantra to her children? Well, I’ve always loved carrots, and yet I’ve worn glasses since I was in third grade. Go figure. Still, carrots are good for you, and, even more importantly, they are easy to grow in the Adirondacks!

One of the things that makes the Adirondacks (or at least a good chunk of the region) ideal for carrots is the loose sandy soil. Root veggies need loose soil so they can grow big roots. If you suffer from heavy clay soil, you will have a tougher time growing things like carrots and beets, but with plenty of soil ammendments, you can still make a go of it. Afterall, my parents’ garden had terrible clay soil, it made weeding a misery, and yet we grew plenty of carrots and beets every year.

When it comes to picking out what carrots to grow, it can be difficult to choose. I tend towards heirloom varieties, partly because they have neat names, partly because they have some unusual colors, and partly because I like to support the folks who are protecting our seed diversity. I don’t particularly like the idea of one or two companies owning the patents on produce and making it illegal for folks to gather their own seeds from these plants. But that’s another story. This year I have Scarlet Nantes, Red Cored Chantenay, and St. Valery among my carrot selections.

Now comes the “hard” part: planting the seeds. Carrot seeds are tiny. Carrot seeds are light-weight. Planting on a windy day can be a disaster. They say to plant your carrots in rows two inches deep. This is difficult to do if you aren’t planting in rows. I mix my carrots with my onions – onions supposedly keep carrot pests at bay – but this means that I’m not planting in rows. So, I end up scattering my seeds on top of the soil and then raking the soil over the top. The trick then is to keep my shallowly-planted seeds wet enough to germinate.

Once they sprout (which takes a while), I discover that my scattering technique needs work. Vast areas are carrotless, while small patches are thick as turf. This leads to the next chore with carrots: thinning them out. I have always hated thinning my veg – it seems like I am wasting food! However, if you don’t thin, then you end up with runty carrots. Runty carrots are difficult to peel, although they make great snacks for the dog.

So I’ve come up with an alternate solution to thinning: transplanting. I tried this last year with some success, so I figure I’ll give it a go again this year. The goal is to take those thick clumps of carrots and spread them out into the Spartan spots; carrot seedlings are so much easier to handle than those weeny carrot seeds. All I have to do is gently remove the clumps, separate them into individual plants, and carefully stick them back into the ground, doing as little damage as possible to the root.

It’s worth the extra time and effort, however, when late summer and fall roll around and the time has come for the carrot harvest. They say that the later you harvest your carrots the sweeter they will be. Some even suggest you leave your carrots in the ground all winter, digging them as you need them. These pundits obviously don’t live in the snowbelt like we do. Dig them in winter? With what, a jackhammer? Nope, I’ll dig mine before the snow flies, thank you.

The final decision is what to do with your carrot crop. My family always froze our veg, so that’s the route I usually take. Still, I do like the idea of fresh raw carrots in January and February, and with a little planning, you can store your carrots all winter to use as needed. All you need is a deep container of damp sand. You fill your container partway with the sand and then lay down a layer of carrots. Cover with sand. Add more carrots. Continue until container is full. When you want a fresh carrot or six, you simply dig them out of the sand.

OH, and you’ll need a cool place to store your container(s), like a root cellar. I don’t have one of those, so I will stick to freezing my carrots.

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