Crazy For Carrots

THE REAL DIRT

May 02, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Some things, gardeners never forget: turning the first spade of earth. Planting the first seed. Chasing the first rabbit.

Harvesting the first carrot.

On Aug. 20, 1983, I reached into the garden, grasped a carrot by the hair and tugged. Out of the ground popped a 6-inch root, all twisted and gnarled. It had three stubby orange prongs. It looked like a misshapen fork. It was the world's ugliest carrot, but I didn't care. It was my carrot, the first one I had ever grown.

I leaped in the air like I'd just struck gold.

I suppose I had.

Giddy with success, I picked a whole bunch of carrots, each as homely as the first. One skinny root could have passed for an orange No. 2 pencil. Yet I paraded them around the neighborhood like blue-ribbon winners at the county fair.

Growing carrots isn't easy. Ask anyone who has tried.

I raised two dozen carrots that year. Beauties they weren't, but HTC the 24-carrot summer made me feel like a million bucks. Filled my tummy, too.

Now, 10 years and hundreds of carrots later, I still remember the rush I felt in picking that first forked root. I'd found buried treasure.

Harvesting carrots is a treat. I just wish I didn't have to plant them.

Carrot seeds are small, and sowing them is a painstaking task. When planting carrots, I take a garden trowel and my reading glasses. What kind of a vegetable that is reputed to enhance one's vision would give its growers eyestrain?

Carrot seeds are quite snooty about garden temperatures. They germinate best at temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. A few degrees off, either way, could cost a gardener half his crop. So will a dry, dusty seedbed. Keep the carrot patch moist at all times.

Weeding and thinning the tiny, slow-growing carrot seedlings is no picnic. When finished, I feel like a golfer forced to line up the same putt at ground level for hours.

Carrots should be thinned to stand 2 inches apart. The trick is to do this without attracting the carrot fly, a red-eyed varmint whose appetite is aroused by the scent of bruised carrot roots. The good news is that these flies like to sleep in, so cultivate carrots early in the morning.

By now, you're wondering why plant a vegetable that places such demands on gardeners.

Ah, but the payoff is sweet. Carrots contain more sugar than any vegetable except beets. The Irish call them "underground honey." Coddled when young, carrots produce sweet, crunchy roots of many sizes.

They suit most garden soils, too. There are squatty baby carrots for heavier soils, and long, tapered giants for well-worked loams. favorite is Touchon, a bright orange, midsized French variety. All carrots like deep, fluffy, well-drained soil, free of stones and fresh manure, which triggers forking.

Their lacy green tops also make carrots a decorative addition to the flower bed, which is where I may hide my crop to outfox the pests that are destroying them. Each year, more and more carrots disappear from the vegetable garden.

Carrot flies aren't to blame. Neither are rabbits. Bunnies forgo my carrot patch, probably because it has become a snack bar for moles and a large dog named Katydid.

Moles attack the crop from below, burrowing into the bed and tasting dozens of sweet roots until they find a favorite. Then they chow down. My carrot patch has become a Whitman's Sampler for moles.

Katydid is a large retriever who would rather gnaw carrots than bones. She'll sneak into the garden when I'm not looking and crawl toward her prey on her belly, like an infantryman. Then Katydid digs a foxhole, finds a carrot and eats it while holding the root between her front paws. Then she slithers back out of the garden again.

Katydid thinks she has fooled me, but I'm wise to her mischief. I should stop Katydid's shenanigans, except I know how it feels to find buried treasure. It's a real kick for her, too.

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