14 May 2016

Dummies' guide to growing root veg

When autumn comes, I always adore the colours on the street trees in our local neighbourhood. The leaves have mostly fallen now, but a couple of weeks ago they looked like this:



What a wealthy, leafy suburb we live in! I always feel a bit overwhelmed at the privilege of it at this time of year. (Although, when you look inside the houses - and yes I am an open-home snooper - they are pretty dated and worn out, in general.) 

Out the back of our house, the veneer of the genteel look disappears, and there is a riotous little Good Life going on! Chickens, vegetables and abundant fruit, all a bit messy but very productive.

Carrots and parsnips from seed tape

These days you'll always find carrots and parsnips growing. We never used to bother with them, because it seemed too hard to get them to sprout reliably where we wanted them. They seem to sprout well if you let a plant go to seed and drop where it will, but with the root veg I like to control where they grow. And I dislike thinning.

Rows of carrot seedlings.

Then I discovered the fail-proof seed tape! It's like a strip of tissue with seeds impregnated in it at just the right distance apart. The seeds all sprout, and they are generally the right distance apart, although I do thin the carrots lightly, as I'd rather have 30 good sized carrots than 50 small ones. The parsnips don't seem to need it.


How to do it

In poor soil, nothing's going to grow well. So firstly, I put some compost on the soil and mix it up a bit. Then I make a 1 cm or so deep trench with my finger. I lay out the seed tape in the trench, then cover it lightly with soil. Finally - and crucially - firm the soil down well over the tape. Those little seeds do not like to meet air pockets.

Then - also crucial - keep it moist, watering lightly every day if it's hot and dry. Once the seeds have started to sprout, they need moisture or they'll die.

Huge, but not at all woody.

Why bother?

I used to think that carrots were cheap enough that there was no point growing them. But the taste...eating a raw shop-bought carrot is a chore. A homegrown one is a pleasure - sweet, crisp and light. 

Parsnip? I used to detest the very word. I'd only had watery mashed ones, long ago in university halls of residence. Then one day somebody gave us some from their garden, and my sister in law roasted them (or did she make parsnip chips?). I have loved them ever since, especially as part of a roast dinner, with gravy.

The perfect roast

Our potatoes failed utterly this year due to trying a new and unsuccessful space-saving method, so when roast time comes around, instead of spuds I have our home grown starchy veg. These are parsnips and some butternuts I grew next to a compost bin and over a fence. Our fussy children still have potatoes though (bought ones). 

One seedling (grown from a saved seed) grew about 12
butternuts on the goodness of a fine compost bin.

Winter or summer?

I planted the current lot of parsnips in mid summer, and they are ready now, but will sit happily in the ground all winter waiting to be dug up when needed. Indeed, they will become even sweeter when (or if) we get a frost. If I leave them until spring, they'll go to seed. They will still look all right when I dig them up, but be inedibly woody. I'll plant some more parsnip seed tape in spring, and they should be ready about mid summer. 

Carrots grow faster than parsnips, but both grow very slowly or pause completely in winter. Our current lot (planted in about February or March) will have to do us over winter, and I'll start planting more in September. Or if this crazy warm weather lasts, I might try sowing more in winter. Because the season is madly warm. Look what I got out of our garden last week, in the last month of autumn!

A late autumn harvest. Beans and tomatoes in May: what the heck?

We live in Hamilton, New Zealand: I have no idea how these things work where it's hotter or colder. 

Also, we have had a lot of grapes. So, so many grapes. Sadly they are now mostly feeding hundreds of wasps.

Green grapes "Niagra"

Ah, vegetable gardening. Still loving it, after all these years (23 years, minus 4 when I was overseas, from student to worker to mother).

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