Carrots From Root to Flower

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Carrot tops sticking out of the soil

No Crowding the Carrots

I can often be found in the garden munching a carrot I couldn’t resist pulling out of the soil and hosing off while I worked. All in the name of proper thinning, of course. Unlike the peas you might consider serving them with, carrots do not like to be too crowded.

It took me several years to get the hang of how to encourage decent carrot seed germination, but lately my carrot luck has extended all the way to the final stage of seed saving. Last fall was the first time I attempted to plant carrot seed I had “saved” by way of forgetting to harvest a couple of carrots that later went to see among the bean poles where I couldn’t see them. I hoped they were purple carrots, the part still sticking up out of the ground certainly didn’t look orange anymore, but when the seeds came up this spring, the roots were mostly a very pale and not especially tasty yellow. Carrots  are an insect pollinated biennial, so chances are that either pollen from another carrot variety was introduced to my purple carrots, or the purple carrots I hoped I was letting go to seed were hybrids that wouldn’t breed true for the purple characteristic that I wanted.

Carrot FlowersThis winter I set aside a much more carefully protected carrot patch in the back garden where a known variety of carrots was grouped together and no other carrots, or other umbels at all, were allowed to flower. I’m just now starting to see flower heads drying enough to save seed and can’t wait to try planting them once the rains start this fall.

The problem is that by the time you save enough carrots to get good cross-pollination, you have just made sure you will have enough carrot seed for an entire army of urban farmers, and their friends. For home use, I just save the seed from the best, largest, and usually first flowers, the Primary Umbels. They make the highest quality seed. If you care to nerd out on such things, the way I do, here’s seven pages worth of research on the facts. And, if you want to see a great picture of the actual carrot seeds, don’t miss this one from the Carrot Museum, yes, seriously, that shows a group of carrot seeds under a microscope. Check out all those tiny hooks!

And leave me a comment if you want to know where you can send an SASE for some free carrot seed!

Don’t Read This – Go Read “The Seed Underground”


To say that I was inspired by Janisse Ray’s The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, would exceed my understatement limit for the week. Before I even finished it, I purchased three more copies to increase my chances of still having one after I start giving it to friends who are on the verge of grasping where our food system is currently heading. I told my husband that when he was finished reading this book, he would better understand his wife, his yard, and his dinner.

Ray weaves her own story of coming to understand food in a deep and fundamental way with many stories of seed savers around the United States and the why, if not so much the exact details of how, they do what they do. It’s not an instruction manual. It’s more a “This I Believe” manifesto of seed saving.

If I could have put the book down, I would have done it in order to plant, collect, or share seeds of the nearest vegetable at hand. The book makes you want to DO something. It lifts you past the doom and gloom of species and varieties disappearing or being forever fouled by the poison of corporate gene manipulation to the beautiful simplicity of action you can take right now to be part of the solution.

You finish the book with the knowledge that seed savers are out there. Seed savers are messy and neat, healthy and sick, on small lots and vast acreage, saving a single variety or dozens at once. Seed savers are people saving food. And maybe seed savers are just like you.

So, don’t read this. Get out there and save some seeds. And take The Seed Underground with you to keep you in good company along the way.

Hot Weekend with Hot Peppers

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I had to transplant the new hot peppers into their bed in the fading evening light because of the unseasonably hot weekend, but they don’t seem to have minded. There are six of them spread out across a 3′ x 4′ bed with a few Nasturtiums. I edged the planting bed in with a dozen ‘Chandler’ strawberries because my daughter can’t seem to get enough of them and they won’t mind a little shade from the growing peppers when things heat up for real. But I’m afraid to look at any of my companion planting books now that I’ve mixed strawberries and peppers.

The peppers for this bed include a ‘Manzano Orange’ which has soft, fuzzy leaves that look more like an eggplant’s. The Manzano pepper is one of the few chilies that are not in the Capsicum annuum species. Instead, it’s a Capsicum pubescens from the Andes. Maybe that’s where the fuzzy leaves come in. Wilipedia says pubescens means hairy. The thick-walled peppers are supposed to look like small apples and make nice hot salsa.

I’m hoping to over-winter the ‘Manzano Orange,’ though it’s going to need to be replanted somewhere with a lot more space because Wikipedia also says, “They grow into four-meter woody plants relatively quickly, and live up to 15 years, which gives them, especially with age, an almost tree-like appearance.” Sounds wonderful! This winter I was able to keep two sweet pepper plants going on in pots on the semi-protected patio. They are each several feet tall and leafing out fully with lots of flower buds right now. I’m very interested to see if, and how, they produce this year. I think they are a ‘King of the North’ and a ‘Corno di Toro.’

My Hot Pepper Have to Have list has been trimmed, due to my uncanny ability to kill pepper seedlings. I can grow asparagus from seed. I can grow potatoes from true seed for God’s sake! But I cannot seem to manage to keep pepper seedlings alive long enough to make it into the garden. Out of the dozens of pepper seeds I have started this year, only one ‘Fish’, one ‘Matchbox’ and one ‘Joe’s Long’ have survived. They are heading out into the garden along with the purchased starts of ‘Pasilla,’ ‘Red Cherry Bomb,’ ‘Ancho Poblano,’ ‘Ethiopian Brown Berbere,’ ‘Pimento Super’ and the ‘Manzano Orange.’

Suddenly that seems like it might be a whole lot of peppers. What’s your favorite way to use peppers? Fresh, dried, pickled or something else I haven’t thought of? Please share!

Hot Pepper Have-to-Haves


The first of this year’s pepper seedlings has sprouted! It’s a Pizza pepper from several year-old Territorial Seeds meant for planting in 2009. After my recent trials with onions seeds, I was glad to see that these held their viability.

On February 15th, I planted six seeds each of  Pizza, Fish, Joe’s Long, Matchbox, and Chervena Chujski peppers. In a few weeks I’ll compare the germination rates and seedlings of the varieties.

Pizza peppers from this same pack of seeds did well for us in 2010, growing late into the fall and producing lots of thick-walled peppers with a little zip to them, but none of the sting some of our hotter peppers bring. I love these for fresh eating in dips, in salsa and in summer pasta dishes.

The Fish peppers grow on beautiful multi-colored plants and carry an irresistible  bit of heirloom history. William Woys Weaver, author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, says, “the Fish Pepper…was an African-American heirloom that began as a sport or mutation of a common serrano pepper sometime during the 1870’s…raised almost exclusively in the black community for use in oyster and crab houses…It was one of those “secret” ingredients favored by cooks and caterers to spike a recipe with invisible heat, for the Fish Pepper was used primarily when it was white, and it could be dried to retain that color. This feature was a culinary plus in the days when cream sauces reigned supreme.”

Fish peppers were prolific on very small plants through our unusually cool summer last year. The six seeds I have started came from Mike the Gardener, and I also plan to start a few more plants from saved seed to compare the fruits at harvest. I like these dried and ground into pepper flakes or powder and added to stews, chili, or barbecue sauces. I may even sneak one or two into the homemade ketchup recipe this year.

Another heirloom, Joe’s Long peppers, are listed as having came over from Italy with the Sestito family. My husband’s family is Italian and that gives me an excuse for lots of wonderful varieties I grow, including this one. Plus they look so darn cool. Check them out on the Bountiful Gardens website where I ordered my seeds. I’m looking forward to trying these fresh and also experimenting with them dried.

I’m planning to grow peppers in containers on the patio this year, a warm and protected spot they should like, and the Matchbox peppers are often recommended as a container variety. I received seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library in an Edible Garden gift basket during the holidays. I’m looking forward to the “sugary-hot” spiciness of these guys. I enjoy adding hints of sweetness to stir-fries, braises and sauces and plan to try these in chili as well. And I hope the plants will complement the colors of the Fish peppers I plan to have growing nearby.

The last pepper in this early batch is a sweet pepper, the Chervena Chujski from Landreth. I was tempted by this variety because it is supposed to be good for both fresh eating and roasting, which we love. Last year I could have used a whole lot more peppers that were good for roasting. I plan to try the Chervena Chujski grilled, hand-roasted over a gas burner, and smoked. If they are productive, I will also pickle some of them.

Which peppers will get space in your garden this year? I’d love to hear what you are growing and what you turn them into once they get to the kitchen!

New Year in Potatoes


Now that the onions and fava beans are planted, I’ve started in on the potatoes. I know it’s not even January yet, but our average January temps are 42˚ F at night and 58˚ F during the day, so potato growing isn’t totally out of the question. I’m growing in containers, mostly grow bags, on the patio against a south-facing wall and I’m going to track the soil temperature, if I can find a gentle way to get the thermometer down there without spearing the developing potatoes.

Potatoes in grow bagsI planted two large blue grow bags with ‘Atlantic’ potatoes. One bag got planting mix and compost, the other bag got acid mix and compost. I want to compare the two plants and their production because I suspect the soil mix I used last year may have been more alkaline than potatoes like. I did a similar test with the smaller black grow bags of ‘Yukon Gold’ set behind the ‘Atlantic’ bags. I’m also testing some red-skinned potatoes in the green grow bags the same way. I’ll do my best to water and feed them all consistently.

I also started an unidentified blue that I believe is leftover from the ‘All Blue’ planting several years ago in the front garden. There’s a bag of ‘Red Thumb’ fingerlings because they were sprouting so nicely I couldn’t leave them out. And a ‘Desiree’ seed potato in the large green container in the back.

Conatiner grown winter potatoesThe first group of patio container potatoes were started October 30th, so they have been out there  nine weeks already. The potatoes in the green grow bag that are already leafing out nicely are ‘Amey Russet’ potatoes grown from potatoes I saved in 2011. This variety originally came from Tom Wagner at New World Seeds and Tubers. The leggy variety in the purple-ish container may be ‘Caribe’, though I won’t be really sure until we harvest them. The label must have slipped down into the container when I was adding soil mix. The black gallon container is growing an earlier planting of the mystery blues. I used the restrictive container because I am hoping to get lots of small potatoes for planting in the spring.

This is my third year growing potatoes through the winter. I chose a sheltered location this winter because last year the harvest was very small and there was considerable frost damage. But in 2010 we had a wonderful harvest in March from winter-grown potatoes.

Have you ever grown potatoes through the winter? Please share how you did it and which varieties worked well for you in the comments.