Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Carrots and Parsnips

Carrots and parsnips are two of winter’s most readily available vegetables. They are relatively easy to grow and store well through the cold months. Last year, I even kept established carrots in my garden plot through winter and dug them up during the first thaw in March. Many argue that frost improves their flavor, and I can attest that they were a fresh and tasty treat when little else was available in my garden. If you decide to try leaving carrots in the ground over the winter, be sure to mark where they are buried and bring a shovel and gloves when it’s time to dig them out. Unfortunately for apartment dwellers, carrots are best stored through winter in a cold cellar in a wooden box filled with sandy soil. Alternatively, thoroughly wash and place carrots in an airtight plastic bag or container in your refrigerator’s vegetable bin for easy apartment storage. Carrots should last at least a couple of weeks in this condition.

While parsnips are only white, carrots can be orange, red, purple, or white. The edible underground bulk of the vegetables can be small, round, skinny, wide, short, or long. Carrot and parsnip roots don’t tolerate transplantation well, so use the direct-sow method. A light (consider adding sand to the area), well-tilled soil is preferred. If soil is too heavy and dense, carrot roots may not be able to spread and grow adequately. Sow seeds shallowly, about ¼” deep, in a sunny area free of rocks. Consider simply sprinkling the seeds over freshly tilled dirt and then covering over with another sprinkling of dirt. However, be advised that if heavy rains come shortly after planting, there’s a good chance the seeds will wash out of your desired row and you will need to replant. Space rows about 6” apart. Weed and water the plants well. Carrots and parsnips make a great second planting after early spring greens are harvested and outdoor temperatures do not dip below 45°F (late April – June) or soar above 63°F for parsnips (late April – May).

Parsnips take a bit longer too sprout. While carrot seedlings will emerge in as little as a few days, parsnips take about three weeks. Consider interspersing your parsnip seeds with radishes to help mark your row and to pass the time as you wait for the parsnips to come up. When the radishes are ready for harvest, the parsnip seedlings should begin to emerge. Carrots take approximately 9-20 weeks to grow, while parsnips take about 16 weeks and are generally harvested in late fall or winter. Both should be thinned out to about 3” between plants when seedlings are established. Thinned plants can be eaten as “baby” varieties. Carrots and parsnips sprout unevenly, so expect to harvest intermittently as vegetables become full-size.

Last year seemed to be a bad year for carrots, so I’d like to take a moment to discuss how carrots can go wrong. First is the previously mentioned problem of seeds washing away in heavy rain. Second, carrots do not thrive in dry conditions. Insufficient watering or bouts of extreme heat will not yield healthy carrots.  Third, environmental stresses (like periods of wildly fluctuating temperatures) can take their toll. Many of the above problems could be why my carrot crop bolted last year. Bolting occurs when carrot tops flower prematurely, often also resulting in a woody or tough vegetable that is inedible. Woody toughness can also result from simply leaving the carrots in the ground too long.