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Winter Food Crop Rotation-- croppedIn January 2013 I wrote about what I do to have winter carrots. I begin in the fall of the previous year and plant rye in rows in my future carrot bed. The rye crop is allowed to mature all the way to seed, which around here in zone 7 is mid-June. When it is cut, the harvest is seed and straw. I lightly hoe between the rows of stubble and plant carrots. I keep this bed well watered to get the carrots off to a good start and replant if there are spots lacking good germination. Once everything is growing well the only attention is to weed periodically. The stubble decomposes, gently feeding back the soil for the carrots.

With this post I thought I would show the carrots in a three bed rotation plan that provides greens and carrots for my household through the fall and winter months, while feeding back the soil with cover crops. If you have trouble reading the text on the garden map, click on it and it will open up in a new window, as will all my photos. I grow all of my compost and mulch materials in order to avoid bringing damaging materials into my garden. In the photo you can see the skeleton of this plan. The carrots and kale and collards take up 43% of the space for the year in the total of the three beds. There are 12 bed crop months in each bed for a total of 36 bed crop months. The carrots and greens use 15.5 bed crop months, or 43%. When I plan cover crops I like to have 60% of the bed crop months in the garden in soil building crops. That would mean that the rest of the space in the three beds would need to be devoted to cover crops, plus I need to have some extra in the rest of the garden to make up for the shortage here. The winter rye that is already part of the rotation is a cover crop.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

The map you see is for the calendar year, showing the crops that are already in each bed at the beginning of the year. The green areas in the plan show when each bed is available for crops beyond the carrots and greens winter food plan. There is a lot of flexibility here. First I will give suggestions for filling those areas with cover crops. Bed 1 is already filled all twelve months, so look at Bed 2. You will harvest carrots from the fall until you have pulled them all or the weather warms in March and they start sending up a seed stalk. If you still have some then, pull them and store them in plastic bags in the fridge and you can have carrots for weeks in your kitchen. If you want to save seed, leave some of the carrots in the garden to go to seed. That might take until July so you may want to have those on one side of the bed, leaving the rest of the bed for something else. Only save from one variety to avoid crossing. My plan shows the carrots are there until March 1. That could vary and they could be there until they show signs of bolting. For a soil building crop you could plant fava beans or field peas. Favas and field pea plants can be harvested as green biomass for the compost pile when they reach full flower. In my area the blooms of fava beans tend to fall off when the weather gets hot, making it hard to save seed anyway. If you take them while blooming, you could follow with another legume, such as cowpeas or soybeans for biomass. Buckwheat can be planted anytime in there to keep the bed planted and to attract beneficial insects. The goal is to have the bed free by the middle of August for the kale and collard transplants that will overwinter. It helps to put a low tunnel on this bed then. It provides a frame for shade cloth at transplanting that is replaced by a plastic cover when the weather warrants. This low tunnel can be moved from one bed to the other to follow the brassicas crop.

Greens and roots for winter food.

Greens and roots for winter food.

In Bed 3 you can see that it begins the calendar year with kale and collards already there, left from last year’s planting. That group of crops (carrots early and kale/collards late) were planted in Bed 3 the previous year as you can see by the rotation arrows, leaving the kale/collards there to overwinter. If the harvest is for greens only, the bed will be ready for the next crop in mid-March. If you intend to save seeds from either kale or collards, those plants will be in the bed until June. Favas or field peas are an option for this bed, but so is spring wheat. That could be followed by cowpeas (or another legume), then buckwheat before it is time to plant the winter rye. In my area rye can go in anytime in October. Plant the rye in rows as to make the carrot planting easier. You can see by the rotation arrows that the crops in Bed 1 will rotate to Bed 3 in the next year and conveniently, the rye will be there, right on schedule.

If you have plenty of compost materials from the other beds in your garden you might prefer to plant crops for eating in those green spaces on the map. In that case, salad crops such as sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and bunching onions could be planted after the carrots or kale and collards. Those crops could be followed by snap beans. Bed 2 needs to be open by mid-August, but you have into the fall in Bed 3 leaving the possibility of planting sweet potatoes in late May/early June after the salad crops. Winter squash is a possibility in Bed 3 and you can use the rye straw harvested from Bed 1 as mulch. Potatoes followed by snap beans could happen in either bed.

Of course, the timing of these crops depends on your location. If you enjoy going to the farmers market for fresh vegetables or belong to a summer CSA, but also like to garden, you may want to consider this winter food plan. It might do well for those of you who like to travel in the summer, as long as you are around for the key planting times. You will find other garden maps and plans in my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you learn how to plan for the whole year, the possibilities are endless.

I will be talking about all of this on Saturday, January 31, 2015 in the presentation that Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and I are giving at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in Richmond, VA. Come and see us!Homeplace Earth

 

 

 

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after the frost foodThe first hard frost of fall has come. I think it happened here on October 24. I can’t say for sure because I was in Ohio visiting family. I knew the seasons would be changing in the eight days I would be gone. In preparation for leaving I was busy cleaning up the garden, which goes hand in hand with building compost piles, and planting cover crops. When I returned on October 30 the leaves on the trees had changed colors and the newly planted cover crop seeds had sprouted.

When the first hard frost comes in the fall, everything changes in the garden. The pepper plants that were so lush the day before are now wilted, along with so many other warm weather crops. That doesn’t mean your garden is finished for the season, however. This is the time for the cold weather crops to take center stage. I look forward to the frost bringing out the sweetness in the carrots and greens. In fact, I don’t worry about growing carrots to harvest in the summer anymore because we are so spoiled with the ones we have in the cold months. For the next six months we will have sweet carrots fresh from the garden. I’ve previously written about how I grow my winter carrots.

Other fall and winter crops that we eat fresh from the garden are beets, Jerusalem artichokes, collards, kale, chard, and parsley.  There are more root crops that I could add to the list, if I had grown them this year. Those crops are turnips, Daikon radish, and kohlrabi. No doubt, some of my readers could add more choices. With onions and garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and peanuts from stored harvests, there is a wealth of food one can eat without further preservation. Our winters here in Zone 7 are not so mild that we don’t need protection for the greens if we want to have a continual harvest. Even at that, picking once a week is what to expect, and less frequently during the weeks of the least daylight, so more area needs to be planted for winter harvest than needed for a spring planting.

kale-row cover-carrots-BLOGI don’t cover the carrots and beets with anything so as not to encourage voles to move in. They are planted early enough to be mature now, so only need to be held in cold storage in the soil. For protection from harsh winter weather for the greens I use low tunnels made from plastic pipe and old greenhouse plastic. This type of cover is easy to erect. The ½” plastic pipe can be inserted into larger size plastic pipe stuck in the ground or put over pieces of rebar. The rebar and larger plastic pipe is cut to 2’ lengths and put half in and half out of the ground. If you leave rebar in the ground without a hoop over it, be sure to cover it with a plastic bottle, piece of plastic pipe, or an old tennis ball. You don’t want anyone to get hurt if they stumble upon it. You can find rebar precut to various lengths in the building supply stores near the cement blocks. Plastic pipe comes in 10’ lengths. I cut it to 8’ to form a hoop over a 4’ wide bed. These pipe structures also have a pipe across the top and a cord (anchored to the bottom of the hoops) that goes over the plastic cover to keep it in place. More details about that are at my blog post Managing a Cold Frame, Low Tunnel, or Mini-greenhouse. The plastic is held to the end hoops with clips made especially for that purpose. They are nice to have.

row cover clip

row cover clip

Having this bounty of food available in my garden all winter is the result of careful planning done sometimes a year in advance. To have the cabbage family greens at a good size now is sometimes a challenge, since they would have been started during hot weather. I have to keep a vigilant watch to pick off cabbage worms and harlequin bugs during those weeks. The seeds are started in the coldframe, not because they need protection, but because the coldframes are my seed starting areas. I do, however, sometimes cover the coldframe with a shadecloth if the weather is too hot and sunny. Once established, the best plants are transplanted to the garden beds. The winter covers don’t go on until cold weather hits. I’m just now bringing the covers out. A big advantage of using this type of low cover, rather than a greenhouse, is that the covers are easily added, removed, or vented, allowing the plants to get the full benefit of the natural climate, including the rain.

If you don’t have this variety of food available in your garden after the frost, and would like to, start making notes now and work on your garden plan to make it happen next year. Go ahead and prepare a bed and put a cover on it now, or at least put up the hoops and be ready for a cover. In late winter you can use it to get off to an early start. Put the cover on two weeks before your planting time to warm the soil. When my community college students planned a season extension structure for their projects, many of them constructed their designs, but put in transplants and seeds too late for a fall or winter harvest. However, often they found they had a very early spring harvest from those plants, especially with things like spinach. If you have the time and inclination to prepare now, it will put you one step ahead for early planting next spring.Homeplace Earth

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winter carrots-1-18-13-BLOGI have to tell you about the wonderful carrots we are eating right out of our garden this winter. The carrots you see in the photo were pulled January 18, swished in a bucket of water to take the mud off and photographed right in the garden. We had our first snow of the year the night before and you can see that didn’t bother them. The varieties I planted are Danvers 126 (on the left in the photo) and Chantenay Red Core (on the right). The seeds came from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. In their catalog both varieties were listed as having a blunt end, with Danvers growing to 6½’’ long and 2’’at the shoulders and Chantenay 5½’’ long and 2½’’ at the shoulders. I have done a taste test and looked at both varieties side-by-side and I have to say, unless I was really looking for differences, I wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. One was ever so slightly sweeter, but they were both so sweet, it didn’t matter. The carrots of both varieties varied in size. I cut the larger ones into carrot sticks to eat raw and put the small ones into soups and cooked dishes. A favorite snack (or quick lunch) of mine is to cut carrots into sticks and use crunchy peanut butter as a dip. Delicious!

Carrots and rye-in-rows-11-22-12 -BLOGTo have all these carrots available now took some planning. They were planted back on June 27 into a bed that I had harvested rye from, cutting it at maturity for grain and straw. The planning, however, went back further than that. The rye was planted on November 3, 2011. Knowing that I intended to plant carrots next, I made furrows close together with a hoe and planted the seed in the furrows. Otherwise, I would have just broadcast the seed and chopped it in with my cultivator to cover it. When rye and wheat are harvested at full maturity, the roots are already on their way out and the soil is soft. The stubble was in rows and I just hoed between those stubble rows and sowed the carrot seeds, covering lightly. The brown stubble that was left in place gradually decomposed, feeding the carrots. I had to be diligent with watering and replant in a couple areas that had not-so-good germination, but I have been rewarded well. This photo was taken on November 22—Thanksgiving. On the left is the carrot bed we are eating from now and the rye that I planted on October 23. You can see the rows in anticipation for next year’s carrots.

Although these carrots were outside the part of the garden that I keep intense records on, I couldn’t resist finding out how much was really there. Of course, I wasn’t going to dig the whole bed all at once to find out. Neither was I going to weigh each carrot I harvested, something I would have done if I was keeping those intense records. Instead, I dug carrots from a 2’ strip for each variety. The bed is 4’ wide, so I was measuring how much was in 8 ft². From that measurement I calculated how much it would work out to for a 100 ft² planting. The results were 115 lb/100 ft² for the Danvers and 145 lb/100 ft² for the Chantenay. I think these are accurate estimates and the yield could have even been a bit higher. I had randomly harvested some carrots previously, so some could have already been taken from these areas. In this trial Chantenay yielded more than Danvers, however since I wasn’t paying too much attention to details (such as randomly harvesting earlier) I wouldn’t say that one variety out yielded the other—yet. Maybe I’ll be more serious about it next year.

Once carrots (and other root vegetables) get hit with frost they sweeten up. Eliot Coleman writes about that in Four Season Harvest. For that reason I only grow carrots for fall and winter harvest these days. Sort of like enjoying strawberries when they are in season. Summer carrots just don’t taste as good and there are so many other things to be eating from the garden in the summer. I need to plant the carrots so that they will be mature by mid-October. Keep in mind that once the nights cool down, growth slows. After mid-October they are just being held in cold storage in the garden until we eat them. If you have been following my blog you know I have trouble with voles. One end of this bed has had some vole damage, but not the devastation you would expect. That could be because I didn’t mulch these carrots. If we were to have harsher weather than we do, I would mulch with leaves, but not until the cold weather really sets in. I want the voles to find other winter homes before I cover the carrots.

At Christmas I usually give sauerkraut to some friends and family. This year I hadn’t made sauerkraut. I was celebrating the carrots that were bursting from that bed that I had tended all year, so everyone received carrots. I’m not sure they were as excited receiving the carrots as I was giving them, but oh well. Maybe I’ll get sauerkraut made for them next year—with carrots in it.

If you would like to be eating carrots like this in mid-winter, keep that in mind as you make your garden plan for this year. I actually make a note on my garden map to plant the rye in rows in that bed so I don’t forget. You’ve missed the window of opportunity to have rye planted in rows for this year, but maybe you can sneak some carrots in somewhere. Make sure to plant them early enough and water well. Good luck!Homeplace Earth

Learn more about winter carrots at http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/winter-carrots.aspx

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