Monday, May 28, 2012

Growing Carrots

Daucus carota, Bugs Bunny’s favorite food, is a garden staple and not very difficult to grow if you understand and accommodate its needs. 

Carrot plants aren’t actually all that fussy, but to develop the long straight roots we want, do require some specific conditions. 

Because the root is what we’re after, it’s always best to sow your carrots directly into the soil they’ll mature in.  It’s very difficult to transplant seedlings without some minor damage to the tap root and that shows up as deformed roots later on. 

These carrots need to be thinned!
Carrot seeds are tiny and the seedlings are very fragile, so it’s essential that the soil remain very soft, open and consistently moist while they germinate.  Carrot seeds germinate best between 45F and 85F.  In the PNW, that means we usually do our first sowing in April, when the soil starts warming a bit.  They’re irregular in their germination—some pop up in a few days, others seeds sit and wait for a couple of weeks before breaking the surface of the soil.  Because of this irregularity and because it’s really hard to drop just one of those tiny seeds at a time, most folks sow relatively thickly and then thin the plants to about 1-1/2” apart.  Growing carrots too closely together causes the roots to become misshapen and sometimes entwined with one another.  Unless you’re planning to post pictures of your bizarre carrots on Facebook, you should give them a little room to breathe…

Once they’re up and growing, carrots don’t need much.  They’re rather light feeders and prefer a light, lean soil over a richer, heavier mix.  Too much fertilizer can cause the roots to get “hairy”, with many little feeder roots extending from the main tap root.  Unattractive, but not harmful.  Give them consistent moisture and if the crowns (the top of the root where the leaves begin) start to show above ground and turn green, cover them with a bit of soil or mulch.  Pull them when they color up and get to the size you want. 

A June/July planted crop of carrots in very well draining soil can stay in the garden over the winter if mulched with straw or shredded leaves.  Like most plants, they get a bit sweeter with the cold.  Carbohydrates converted to simple sugars as a response to lower temperatures act as a natural anti-freeze within the plant’s tissues. 

The main pest of carrots in our area is the carrot rust fly.  The females lay their eggs in the soil around carrot family plants and when the larvae hatch, they wiggle over to the roots and burrow in.  The lovely little white maggots chew around in the root, leaving rusty brown trails.  The carrot is still edible after you cut out the bad spots, but will not keep as long in storage.  The best way to foil these pests is to grow carrots under floating row cover, either laid directly over the plants, or over low hoops.  Whichever way you do it, be sure to completely enclose the plants—the flies are small, attracted by the scent of the plants and really motivated!  Keep the plants covered all season as there are several generations of the flies born each summer. WSU's Hortsense website has some good info about these annoying little guys.

Carrot Rust Fly damage.
Photo by Eric Sideman, MOFGA
If you think carrots only come in bright orange, you’re in for a treat.  Orange, yellow, gold, white, red and purple are all available.  And since each color is formed by a different combination of phytonutrients, a variety of carrots in your garden means more nutrition on your plate!  Here are a few varieties that I’ve grown and liked.  My family tends to like very sweet carrots eaten fresh or steamed.  We don’t juice them, so I don’t know how well they’d do for that.

A mix of colors from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds
Scarlet Nantes
Nantes generally refers to a group of carrots that are very crisp and sweet, about 6” to 7” long and more cylindrical than tapered.  Just about every seed company sells some strain.  My main crop is always Scarlet Nantes.
Nelson and Yaya
Hybrid varieties of Nantes, these are both quite reliable and yummy.

Yellow Solaris  
Light yellow, with a very sweet flavor.  They can get quite big when overwintered, but they seem to form cores and start to bolt earlier than others, too.
 More golden than Yellow Solaris, with a deeper flavor. 

Dragon, from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds

I haven’t had tremendous luck with these—the slugs got almost all the seedlings as they came up last year.  But, they sound great and I’m determined!  If you’ve grown them, let me know what you thought.

These are smaller and not as crisp as some, but have a really nice spicy taste.  And they’re gorgeous—purple on the outside, with little flecks of orange.  The inside is bright orange or even yellow, so they look really cool when sliced.

Scarlet Nantes, 2006

Have fun and let me know how your carrots turn out this year!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Eating from the Garden in April

We are soooo lucky in the Pacific Northwest!  For lots of reasons, but in particular because we can grow so much food over the winter.  This week, we’ve eaten carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, Purple Sprouting broccoli, parsley, chives, sorrel, thyme, rosemary, oregano, kale, Swiss chard, arugula and beets out of the garden.  And I’ve discovered that as much as I love kale anytime, my favorite season for it is spring!  Not the leaves, but the luscious little flower buds, or raab. 

Purple Sprouting Broccoli, planted last July, eaten this week.
We’re used to eating the immature flowers of the Brassica family—broccoli and cauliflower heads are just unopened flower buds.  But even varieties grown primarily for their leaves produce these yummy little treats.  Best of all, they’re available when most of the other food from the garden is either running out or not ready yet.  The Purple Sprouting Broccoli and some overwintering varieties of cauliflower and cabbage are maturing, but it’s nice to be able to get a few last fabulous harvests off of the plants you thought were ready for the compost heap. 

Tuscan/Dinosaur Kale
Most of the members of the Brassicaceae family are biennial, meaning they grow leaves their first year, then flower and (usually) die the second.  They need the cold of winter to produce flowers and seeds.  Starting in late winter, they begin to elongate and send out shoots with buds that look like tiny broccoli heads.  Depending on the variety, these are either incredibly sweet (kale) or have a stronger flavor of whatever they are like in the summer (arugula and cabbage.)  The plants are determined to make seeds, so the more you pick the flower buds, the more they produce.  The flavors are mildest when the flowers are still buds, but still tasty when completely open.

Russian Kale really going to seed.  It was about 8' tall!
I’ve been growing a variety of Russian kale for several years, saving seed and selecting for the plants that are the most vigorous and the most aphid-resistant.  The first year was an accident, really.  I knew you could keep the kale plants through the winter, cutting leaves as needed.  Then a weird thing happened in February that year—the plant got HUGE and started making flowers!  A gardening mentor told me to try eating those flower buds and I was hooked.  Now I always let at least one plant go to seed completely although I rarely use the seeds myself.  Enough germinate on their own in the garden to keep us in kale all year.  We pick and eat the flower buds from the other plants for several weeks.  I like to just steam them like broccoli, or use them in salads.  If I don’t eat them in the garden long before they ever get to the kitchen… 

Brussels Sprouts
Some favorite cole crops to let flower:
Russian kale (red or white)
Tuscan or Lacinato (dinosaur) kale
Brussels Sprouts (Long Island Improved, Rubine and Franklin Hybrid this year)
Arugula (The opened flowers are beautiful and surprisingly sweet!)
And a brand new plant (to me):  Spigariello!  My friend Annette gave me some seeds last summer. I have to admit, I wasn’t too excited about the long stringy leaves, but let it go overwinter.  Its flower buds are the sweetest of all the plants in the garden right now!  The seeds I have are from Nichols Garden Nursery, but they're not offering them this year.  Terroir Seeds has a description on their website.

Spigariello--most of the flowers have been cut,
but it's making more everyday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When is the Best Time to Plant Peas in the Pacfic Northwest?

Every year, that first bite of fresh peas from the garden makes me do the “happy food dance” right out in the open.  We’re partial to shelling peas in my house, so the anticipation of splitting open the pod to see if the seeds are full and plump, or if I’ve jumped the gun (I always do, at least a few times) is part of the fun. 

This year, I’m expecting that first mouthful to happen by the end of May, assuming we don’t have any major blizzards between now and then.  I planted peas into the garden March 2nd.  Even though I pre-sprouted them, the soil was still only about 48 F, so they just sat there, sulking for several days.  I’d about given up and went out with more seeds to try again on March 12th.   Sure enough,  there were their little green noses, sticking up out of the ground!  Like most plants, they grow more quickly in warmer weather, but now that they’re out there, they can take advantage of every sunny hour. 

Can you see the tiny babies peeking out?  (Ignore that dandelion, please!)

Peas are definitely cool weather crops and can withstand light frosts without a problem.  They will germinate in moist soil as chilly as 45 F, but it’s a slow process and risks rot and predation.  Although they appreciate consistent moisture, water-logged soil encourages fungi that attack and can kill.  Raised beds can help, as can making sure you have plenty of organic matter in the soil.  The trick is to get them up and going as early as you can to ensure the longest harvest time before the weather gets warm and dry.  Before the weather gets warm and dry…yeah…  ok, so last year the peas continued to produce into August!  Most years, they start to decline and succumb to enation virus or powdery mildew well before that. 

Here they are yesterday.  There's chicken wire about
2" above them.  I like to leave a little room to get in there.

By soaking and pre-sprouting the seeds, you can get a head start on germination, especially if the soil is still below 50F at the surface.  Place the seeds in resealable plastic bags or something similar with a little water or a very damp paper towel and keep them somewhere warm for a couple of days, checking often.  As soon as they start to germinate, open the bag and get them into the ground.  Be very careful of that brittle little sprout! 

Peas are in the Fabaceae family and most of that group are referred to as “Nitrogen Fixers.”  They form a symbiotic relationship with specific rhizobium bacteria.  The bacteria colonize the roots of bean and pea plants, absorbing some nutrients and in return, capturing and “fixing” gaseous nitrogen from the air in the soil.  The plant uses some of this nitrogen to create chlorophyll, which it needs for photosynthesis.  It’s a good idea to inoculate your pea seeds with this bacteria before planting, since it’s not generally present in great enough quantities in most garden soils.  It’s usually available from nurseries and seed catalogs in small packets.  I've seen greater vigor and higher yields when I've inoculated the seed.

Plant peas 1” to 2” deep, depending on your soil type.  Heavier soils make it more difficult for the seedling to emerge, so lean towards the 1” depth in soils with more clay.  Peas rather like company, so plant them about 1” apart. 


You can barely see the chicken wire supported by PVC
over rebar here.  This variety is called 'Alderman Tall Telephone.'
It takes longer to mature, but is one of my favorites.  Those are
potatoes below.
Pole, or climbing varieties need some sort of trellis for support, since some of them get upwards of 6’ tall.  Peas use tendrils rather than twining, to climb, so chicken wire or similar mesh materials work better than the bamboo poles often used for beans.  Do remember to put up the trellises BEFORE you plant your peas so you don’t have to work around them later.  Bush varieties will just clamber up each other and form a dense clump.   Planting them in rows a little farther apart with just a little support may make it easier to get in there and harvest the pods. 

Last year, I tried using twine and bamboo poles as a trellis.
It worked pretty well, but I made it too short--the plants
flopped over the top after awhile.


So, once your soil is workable and above 45F, pre-sprouted or not, inoculate your pea seeds and get that first crop into the ground! 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Quick Visit to Roadhouse Nursery in Poulsbo

On my way back from speaking to the Central Valley Garden Club yesterday, I stopped into what's become a new favorite--Roadhouse Nursery, owned by Jan and George Bahr.  Besides specializing in water plants and gardens, they're one of the few places I've seen that offers a good selection of interesting perennials in 4" pots.  These smaller plants catch up to their larger buddies quickly and are easier on the budget! 

I've been to Roadhouse several times for meetings of our local Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association (WSNLA), but it's always been at night, so yesterday was the first time I'd really spent any time looking at the nursery itself.  The building really was an old roadhouse (and possibly of ill repute!) and it's in a simply bucolic setting.  There are beautiful ponds showcasing water plants and a lovely gazebo with an view of the mountains.

I was too busy chatting with Jan, checking out the vegetable starts and buying a new delphinium to take any pictures, but you can see some on the Roadhouse Nursery website by clicking here.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Rhubarb--Queen of Spring!

The rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) leaves are unfurling, coming out of the magenta nubbins that started poking out of the cold wet soil a few weeks ago.  They'll need to be divided next year, to keep them from entirely taking over the area they share with the asparagus and perennial herbs.  Not necessarily the best bedfellows, but it's where they are right now and everyone seems to put up with it, so moving them around hasn't been a high priority. 

I love the way the crinkly leaves have a slight red tinge to the edges to match the color of the stems.  These plants will be almost 4' in diameter by June, with leaves as wide as those inflatable exercise balls.  Mmmmm, I can almost taste the strawberry-rhubarb jam already...

Now is the time to add an inch or so of good compost around the root zone of rhubarb.  The roots are huge and look a lot like bright orange sweet potatoes when cut.  It takes a lot of stored food to grow those gigantic leaves and a lot of green surface to manufacture enough food to support those big roots! 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New Vegetable Gardening Classes in Poulsbo Parks & Rec catalog!

Poulsbo Parks & Recreation's 2012 Spring/Summer catalog is out and there are so many cool classes available!  Almost makes me wish I was a kid again to take some of them.  Almost... 

I have 5 classes offered there and will be particpating in the Summer Pruning class put on by the Poulsbo Tree Board in July.   

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ready to do some serious thinking about growing some of your own food?  Here are some events and classes I'll be doing in the next few weeks:


Tuesday, March 27, 3:00-6:00 PM  Farm Walk at Pheasant Fields Farm in Silverdale

Come join me for a fun afternoon touring a working farm!  Learn about soils, year-round growing and equipment to make gardening and small scale farming easier and more efficient.  I’ll be giving a talk on starting seeds indoors.  Presented by WSU Kitsap Extension Small Farms Team, Pheasant Fields Farm, and Washington Tractor. 
$10 per person or $15 per family
Registration online at or call 360 337 7026


Starting Seeds in the
Organic Vegetable Gardening Class

Saturdays April 14 and 21,  10:00 AM-4:30 PM   Organic Vegetable Gardening  Learn the basics or hone your gardening skills in this 2 day course.  Topics covered include garden planning and design, soil preparation and testing, plant selection, synthetic-free fertilization and pest management, irrigation and harvest tips.  Students will start seeds to take home for their own gardens.
Bring a sack lunch and your edible gardening questions!

$98 and $10 materials fee

Poulsbo Parks & Rec

Register at 360 779 9898


Tuesday, April 17, 6-8:30 PM  Grow Your Own Salad Bowl!

Learn what vegetables you can plant together in one container to harvest complete salads! Students will plant and take home their own Salad Garden Bowl.  Plants and materials provided.

Poulsbo Parks & Rec

Register at 360 779 9898

'Didn't know you could grow
beans in a container, did you?
Saturday, April 28, 10-Noon   Container Gardening    
No room for a garden plot?  You can still grow lots of great veggies on your patio or deck in containers!  Learn what to look for in a container, what kinds of soil to use and which vegetables to choose.  You’ll be surprised at what you can grow in a small space!
Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec
Register at

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dinner from the Winter Garden

Ahh, my first blog post! 

I just came in from the garden with an armload of kale, broccoli and carrots.  They were all planted last summer for harvest through the winter and early spring.  Steamed Purple Sprouting broccoli and freshly pulled carrots for dinner tonight!  Not very Irish, but we’ll be celebrating St. Paddy’s tomorrow with a colcannon of the last of 2011’s potatoes and the kale I just picked. 

Harvesting the last of the over-wintered crops makes room for the new plants in the greenhouse waiting their turn to get into the garden.  I’m a little later than usual this year, but the broccoli, cauliflower, Bok Choi and cabbage will be ready in a couple weeks.  The tomatoes will be going in under a low tunnel cloche soon after that.