Ask Farmer Tim: The Root of the Matter
Farmer Tim shares his insights how planting root vegetables produces more than produce.
How do you prepare the soil for root vegetables like carrots?
We do not have ideal conditions for carrots in Pennsylvania. That’s why there are not any commercial growers in Pennsylvania that I know. We have clay soil and the carrots have a hard time. We amend our soil with lots of compost and sand. The ratio is three parts compost to one part sand. For us, that means six tons of compost and two tons of sand per half acre. We use raised beds made with wood or we’ll hill up the dirt at least six inches high, flatten the top, and seed into that. Carrots are a difficult crop to grow. They are sensitive to water and heat. If they get too much of either, they have a tendency to split.
What time of the year do you plant carrots?
Here at Freedom Farms we do succession planting. That means we plant multiple times, and with carrots, we plant those any time a bed is open. You always want to have a root system in the soil. Most people don’t realize that their soil is a living system, and you need food for that system. The root system is that food.
How do you know when it’s time to plant another crop?
The trick is to not let the carrots over mature. The general rule is to plant them every three weeks, but I watch my plants develop. Our weather here is so variable. One day it’s 80 degrees and the next it’s 35. Our temperature swings are crazy. So the best way to assess a fickle crop like carrots is to be attentive to your plants. For me, I wait until the greens are two inches high.
Do you plant carrots all year long?
We do. We have greenhouses, but we also have floating fabric row covers. The fabric holds moisture and heat, but it’s not as hot as a greenhouse. The fabric is translucent and breathable so it keeps the plant from getting frosted or too much wind stress. We get pretty harsh wind, especially in the spring, and that can stress the plants. You want your plant to get some stress to be hardy, but not too much. They’re a little like people that way.
You said that they can be fickle about heat and moisture. How often should you water carrots?
The main thing is to not overdo it. Put your finger in the soil; if it’s moist, then leave it alone. You don’t want to soak it because that creates root rot. If you don’t water them enough, the vegetable is reduced. Generally speaking, no crop likes to be saturated. But with carrots, I give them one to two inches of water per week.
It sounds like a delicate process. Did it take time to learn how to grow this crop?
Growing carrots was a huge learning process. We had a lot of failures. And I did my research, but there wasn’t a lot of information out there. It essentially comes down to this—you have to be observant. You have to watch your plant develop.
What types of varieties do you grow?
Our spring variety is the Nelson, and our overwinter crop is Napoli. These are sweet and a little tenderer than other varieties. Both of these can be used as storage carrots if necessary. The carrots that you buy in the grocery store have a high yield per acre so they appeal to a commercial farm, but they have so much less flavor. At Freedom Farms, we want a superior quality and taste.
When do you harvest your carrots?
Since we do succession planting, we are harvesting year round. I look for the orange of the carrots starting to pop out of the ground as the indicator. But I will monitor my crop by pulling a carrot out here or there. The main issue is that you don’t want to let them go to seed; that’s when they get woody. We like the younger carrots because they are sweeter and tenderer when you harvest them small. They are good raw eating quality and excellent on salads.
How do you preserve or store your carrots?
At Freedom Farms, we use the ground as storage to preserve our carrots. The floating row covers keep them at a good temperature. It may be cold overnight, but by ten o’clock in the morning, the soil is thawed enough to harvest. If you want to store your carrots at home, just leave them in the ground over the winter and put six inches of straw on them to keep them warm. You don’t need to have floating row covers.
What’s your favorite way to eat carrots?
Ah man—right out of the ground! I wipe them off on my sleeve and eat them in the field. My favorite time of the year to eat them is in the dead of winter. They are so much sweeter. The cold temperatures make them so sweet that we call them candy carrots. Plus, we tend to eat less fresh vegetables over the winter and it takes you back to when it was summertime.
Are carrots available all year round at the Freedom Farms Market?
We are making more beds for carrots now, and we’ll continue to do so until we can meet the demand. Right now, we always sell out because it’s such a quality product. Another trouble I face is in not having enough people to hire to come work in the fields. That was not a problem for my parents. They could hire anyone out of highschool. At any rate, it is good for our soil to have that root system in the ground. We are always learning about how to take care of our soil. Root vegetables help us to do that.
Are there innovations in soil preparation?
The funny thing is that the more we learn, the more we return to the ways my grandfather farmed. He didn’t have access to chemicals, so he used techniques like grazing animals to fertilize the fields. The more that we learn, the more we realize that the system was already in place before we came along. Our soil is so important and not even the best and the brightest minds have a full understanding of microbiology yet. There is so much more to learn. The more we observe nature’s ways, the better.