St. Patrick’s day or not, Tuesday, March 17th was a big day in our garden. David and I both had the day off, it was warm and sunny with rain scheduled for the next day, and the soil was finally workable.
Do you know this term, workable? Many early seed packets will tell you to plant them “as soon as the soil can be worked.” This means that the ground is not frozen, and that it’s not too wet. Timing is tricky in the spring because you want to get stuff in the ground, but if you mess with your soil when it’s too wet you can seriously damage the soil’s fragile structure, causing it to clump and compact, something that is not easy to fix. Structure refers to the way soil hangs together, the relationship between the particles of soil and the pore space between them. This relationship is crucial to your soil’s ability to hold moisture and air, for roots to grow through it, and for the millions of creatures living in it. Structure is different than texture which refers to the relative amounts of different sized mineral particles present in your soil (sand, silt, or clay).
Soil is amazingly complicated stuff and is worthy of our deepest respect, but let’s not get into that right now. Suffice it to say that the timing was right and Tuesday was the day.
Incidentally, the best way to improve your soil’s structure is to add organic matter which also feeds your plants and enhances your soil’s capacity to hold moisture. This is a task that is best done in the fall (because of those spring timing issues), but we didn’t get to it last fall, so we did it Tuesday. Better late than never.
As a conflicted American consumer, I can find a million things to feel guilty about. When I lived on the East Coast in an apartment with an outdoor space, but no dirt, and no compost situation I never got used to not composting. For seven years, every time, seriously, every time, I threw food in the trash it bothered me. So one of the first things I did at my new place was establish a compost situation. It’s a pretty simple set-up, but I sleep better for it.
The enclosed middle compartment is this season’s working compost. That’s where I put kitchen scraps, yard waste, leaves, judicious amounts of ashes from the fireplace, etc. The left side has wire around it that you can’t really see, I put leaves in there (I should add more to it), the other side is where last year’s compost got turned so I could start a new batch in the middle. I’m not a master composter yet, but I aspire to be, and I actually made a batch of compost last year, which feels like a major step on the road to a self-sufficient closed-loop garden. We weren’t sure if it would be enough to add some to all of our beds though, so David got a scoop from Nitron (www.gardeniq.com) to supplement.
Then, while I was planting carrots and radishes, David, Mountain Man that he is, did the heavy lifting and wheelbarrowed compost into all the beds. Then he mixed it in and we were ready to plant!
CARROTS and RADISHES
I started with carrots and radishes because that bed was already prepared from when I planted garlic in it in November. At that time I added compost and worked it in and made sure that the soil was nice and friable. Carrots like loose soil, which makes sense if you’ve ever seen a crazy knobby two-legged carrot come out of hard rocky soil. I have nothing against those carrots, I love the way they are physical embodiments of the journeys they’ve taken, but I still made sure my soil was loose and light as far down as a carrot might grow. Then I made a shallow furrow across the bed.
Carrot seeds are tiny and it always seems like the wind starts blowing right when you want to plant them. (To avoid frustration, it’s also a good idea to open your seed packets indoors when your hands are clean and dry.)
I sprinkled them as sparingly as possible down the furrow. Because they’re so light, it’s hard to plant them thinly. One of the tricks of growing good carrots is thinning them. I’m happy that anything wants to grow in my garden, so it can feel ungrateful to pluck out tiny seedlings just as they’ve seen their first light, very Sophie’s Choice. But if you want nice carrots, that’s the sacrifice, so when these puppies get 1-2” high I’ll snip some off at the soil line. Then later I’ll try to thin them so they’ve got space around them about the size of a mature carrot with a little room to spare, hopefully I can eat those tiny thinnings.
I spent a lot of time trying to decide which carrots to plant this year. I finally narrowed it down to three: St. Valery, an ancient orange carrot with very high reviews for taste, Amarillo, a neon yellow carrot with a reportedly sweet taste, and Purple Dragon, a spicy, purple carrot with a deep yellow core. Then Baker Creek sent me some free Parisienne carrot seeds, which I had been curious about, so I’m trying them too. They are little round carrots, which makes them a good choice for less than perfect soils. It sounds like Baker Creek sent them free to everyone, and made them a lot of fans. I look forward to roasting them whole.
Carrots take a while to germinate and because I have a small garden, I’m always looking for ways to save room, so I like to plant radishes with my carrots. Radishes are quick. Once they germinate they provide shade for the slow spindly carrot seedlings. They also break up the soil for the carrots and are long gone before the carrots even get going.
Radish seeds are bigger and easier to control. I placed them about 2” apart, then I carefully knocked a very light layer of soil over them and patted that down gently. I watered them with a watering can and then covered them with strips of burlap and watered those too. When the radishes germinate in a few days I’ll take off the strips and let the radish seedlings nurse the carrots along, keeping them all moist until it’s time to eat radishes! I’ll probably try to find room for some more carrots elsewhere and plant those in a month or so. And once I’ve eaten the ones I just planted, I may plant some more there. Successive planting is a great way to make sure you have a crop all season.
Below is the root bed on May 23rd last year. You can see the carrots peeking out from under the radishes in front. That’s chervil in the very back of the bed with bigger leaved parsnips in front of it. In the bed behind are onions. Chervil is a great spring herb and I need to get some planted for this year! It’s a lovely, delicate, cool-weather herb, like a feathery parsley with hints of tarragon.
Wilson loves carrots. I told him it would take a while, I hope he’s not waiting for them.
Remember these guys? Here they are March 11th, eight days after being planted.
Inquisitive little things, aren’t they? Like little Loch Ness Monsters. Each checking out the situation in their own way. “Hi, have you gotten the schedule yet? What’s next?”
And busy! We went away for the weekend and came back to these rowdy teen-agers. 100% germination!
They got caught in the rain earlier in the week and were wetter than I wanted them to be, plus they were starting to get a little moldy. David took one out to examine it and saw that they had crazy tap roots, so we decided we’d better get those kids in the ground!
Their root systems really are amazing. Look at this action! Exquisite!
And yes, I realize the whole point of the loo rolls was to leave them in place and not disturb that elaborate ladder of a root system, but then I read in Barbara Damrosch’s indispensable The Garden Primer (1988), that she had noticed when she pulled up spent crops in the fall that often the peat pots they were planted in were still quite intact. Ultimately, I decided to carefully remove the loo rolls (I put them in the compost) and plant them gently in deep holes. Luckily they got nicely rained in and so far they look really happy.
On to the next!