By Sally Ford
From Growing Green International 11.
Unfortunately, growing carrots without tears is not easy. Certain vital measures have to be taken to ensure success, but, with a modicum of effort, beautiful umbelliferae can be yours! So, why not put your hanky away and make this the year when veganorganic carrots rule supreme.
Shrub Carrots at a Glance
* Sow late February-July in drills 8 inches apart
* Thin progressively to 3 inches
* Cover to protect from root-fly
* Harvest June-September
* Store in moist medium
* Eat as many as you can – preferably raw – they’re delicious and good for you!
Shrub “Tirer une carotte à quelqu’un” is a popular French saying meaning to swindle or cheat someone. And you certainly feel cheated if that most annoying of garden pests, the carrot root fly, finds its way into your carefully tended crop. As vegans, we try to tolerate all creatures, but have to admit that some are less tolerable than others. There you are rejoicing in the luscious, feathery green leaf growth and clapping yourself on the back for having successfully germinated the seed and fought off the slugs, whilst underground it’s another story. Suddenly you become aware of a telltale reddish-brown tinge to the foliage and you realise that, despite your companion planting and careful thinning, you’ve been cheated yet again of the perfect carrot. Just to be sure, you pull one and there they are, the red speckles and tiny holes which betray the presence of the unwanted visitors.
Don’t despair, there is a solution. It may not be a pretty one, but it works. Cover your crop. For commercial growers it’s not so easy, but in a garden or on an allotment, it really pays dividends. Over the years, we’ve used both the cheap solution – an assortment of old net curtains acquired by advertising our requirement in our local LETS directory and costing us only a few “Clees” – and the expensive one – Enviromesh, obtainable through all good gardening catalogues at a cost of £15-30 depending on size. Recycled nets tend not to be large enough for the many rows of carrots we like to grow, but on small patches they work just as well. A few hoops are also needed to keep the cover away from the crop and some bricks or poles to hold down the edges.
The first flies arrive in late spring (around end May), lay their eggs on the soil and the tiny maggots burrow down into the soil and into the carrots. Later, they pupate and in August/ September lay their own eggs and the cycle starts again. It’s therefore essential to get your covering in place early on. In fact, we cover from the word go, lifting the cover only briefly for early watering, weeding and slug removal.
Yes, slugs are the carrot grower’s other big enemy. There’s nothing they like better than a tender little carrot seedling. Friends often claim that their carrots haven’t germinated, but I have a suspicion that they just haven’t been vigilant enough. The seeds probably have germinated but have been so quickly gobbled up by slugs that they never even noticed they were there. Unless the weather is very dry or you have somehow managed to achieve the el Dorado of a slug-free garden, daily inspection, preferably after dusk, is a must for the first few days after the seedlings appear. Escort all slugs off the premises with strict admonitions never to return.
My partner, Clive, has devised a seemingly foolproof way of ensuring a good crop of early carrots. It does involve some initial effort, but a good start in life always pays real dividends. He constructs portable troughs from old pallet wood (local DIY or plumbing stores are a good source) – see diagrams. The seed is sown in late February in a home-made mix of fine loam (from rotted turfs), recycled coir (previously used to germinate seeds) and seaweed meal. The troughs are kept in our big solar greenhouse until the foliage is at least 3″ high and any thinning takes place in this root-fly-free-zone. When the weather is good enough (end March, early April), the troughs are carried outside – often with some ceremony- and placed on a suitable veg bed. The bottom slats, which had been held in place by string, slide out to allow the carrots to grow down into the soil without disturbance. Cover with a net or mesh, water occasionally if very dry, and sit back and wait for a bumper crop of delicious carrots. Depending on the state of the wood when you make the troughs, they should last for several years. We have always found Nantes 2 a tasty and reliable early variety.
For maincrop, Autumn King and Berlicum are our two favourites which we grow for storage, as we grow enough earlies to last well into the summer or even early autumn. Obtain as fine a tilth as possible, then sow the seed during a warm spell in early June in shallow V-shaped drills – carefully water the bottom of the drill before sowing – cover with sieved leaf mould and tamp gently. The rows should be approximately 8 inches apart. Hopefully you are operating a rotation system: carrots will do best in soil that received a good helping of compost the previous year.
Sowing thinly helps to avoid the need for too much thinning of seedlings, but If you want to get some decent-sized carrots and unless germination was very poor, you are likely to have to do some thinning, first to approx. 1 inch and, later on, to 3 inches. Wait for a cloudy day – you shouldn’t have to wait long – as the dreaded root flies are supposedly more active on a sunny day or do it in the evening. Needless to say, leave the cover off for as short a time as possible.
Water only if there has been very little rain. Leaving the carrots dry encourages them to grow good long roots in search of water.
If your crop should fail, through bad luck, bad management or neglect, you can sow a replacement as late as the end of July and still get a good crop.
Carrots will store well in the ground, but mice can be a problem. If you haven’t got a patrolling cat, it’s best to lift the carrots in late September or early October and store in moist leaf mould or loam (it must be moist to prevent the carrots drying out) in a suitable receptacle. If you’ve got a big crop, an old chest freezer is ideal.
There’s one more question which readers are surely burning to ask. How do you avoid forking and misshapen roots? I’m afraid I haven’t got the answer to that one, although some say that too rich a soil or stones in the soil can cause this. My solution is to rejoice in the occasional weirdo – it wouldn’t find its way into Tescos which, for me, is reason enough to celebrate its individuality.
I flew and flew, it seemed for weeks,
Until I found this likely plot
Amongst the onions and the leeks
He planted to disguise the spot.
I’ve lain in wait since first I saw
The tiny shoots peep through the soil,
The time will come, ’tis Nature’s law,
Abetted by the gardener’s toil.
Now underneath the crumbly loam
I know my progeny are secure,
I’ve found for them the perfect home,
And so my lineage will endure.
But lo, the gardener’s troubled frown
Is followed by an angry shout:
“The leaves are starting to turn brown,
The carrot root fly is about!”
He bends and kneels beside the bed
To pull a carrot from the row,
But it’s too late, he’s seeing red,
His face now tells a tale of woe.
The reddish hue upon the leaves
Betrays success, that I can tell,
As I rejoice, the gardener grieves,
The noble root has served me well.