Picky, Picky


CarrotsWe are very proud here at the Rant of our readership of academics and horticultural professionals and very grateful for the knowledge and brain power that they add to the conversation. But occasionally we’ll get a complaint from a pro, as in "How dare amateurs like you move onto my turf?"

We may be amateur gardeners, but most of us here are professional writers, so we consider anything that interests us our turf. Such is the arrogance of writers. The truth is, while we defer to the designers and soil biologists and nursery owners on the art and science and business of gardening, we have a lot to say about the experience of gardening.  And that experience is simply different for amateurs than it is for professionals, who have to get the job done with their dignity intact, no matter what.

We amateurs don’t HAFTA do anything.  We do what we WANNA do.  If we wanna plant 200 perfumey lilies and to hell with the design scheme, we do it.  If we don’t wanna finish mulching, we don’t until we wanna.

What I WANNA do is, admittedly, faintly crazy.  Shoveling dozens of wheelbarrow loads of compost in 95 degree heat and blazing sun, while wearing long pants tucked into tick-discouraging knee-high barn boots?

No problem, I am there.  But doing a genteel job like thinning root crops?  Sitting on my butt with a pair of nail scissors for an hour, cutting the tops off of carrot seedlings? Picky work like this makes me want to run screaming for the exits. My God, it’s so boring, it might almost be housework.

As a result, I’ve never grown a decent carrot in my life, because carrots simply will not form a root worth talking about if they are crowded. In fact, I cannot grow any root crops other than celeriac, which I buy as teenagers from the nursery–and potatoes, which, praise the Lord, do not need to be thinned and are so forgiving, that you can safely start a crop in April, or in June, or in August.  Or, if you are as spud-greedy as my family, all three.

But I do sometimes say to myself, "Michele, grow up." This happened last summer staying at my friends Martha and Tom’s place in Maine.  Martha came back, as she does every summer, from the local farmstand with the most beautiful little white turnips.  And as she does every summer, she handed me Ruth Reichl’s Gourmet cookbook and ordered me to make the glazed turnip recipe.  And as I do every summer, I followed orders and made a dish so delicious, every turnip disappeared.

It was time to grow white turnips.  It was time to grow parsnips, too–because a peeled parsnip, roasted in olive oil and salt for 15 minutes at 400 degrees is the sweetest vegetable known to man.

And it was probably time to grow a damned carrot successfully, just for the sake of self-respect.

Here is how it’s going, now that I’m doing what I barely wanna do:

1. Parsnips: I sowed these with the sometimes-recommended nurse crop of radishes. The radishes have bigger seeds, so if you mix the two together, you theoretically get more reasonable spacing for the tiny parsnips.  The radish plants also deliver sooner, so the idea is that you pull the radishes and get instant room between the slow-maturing parsnips. Well, the radishes, sowed dutifully in early April, are already getting woody and going to seed before they ever really bulked up.  (The curse of my climate, where there is no long spring for cool-weather crops.) But, surprisingly, when I pull them, the parsnips stay put.  So it seems to be working.  The parsnips are big and healthy-looking.  My word, I’m so motivated that next time I’m in the garden, I fully intend to weed and thin further.

2.  Turnips.  I tried a different psychology with these.  I’m thinning them in order to get the turnip greens.  Pasta with bacon, shallots and turnip greens is very good indeed.

3. Carrots.  A total cheat–I bought two packages of Ferry-Morse carrot strips in April and my kids were interested enough in these 15-foot long, inch-wide pieces of paper to plant them for me.  The strips are impregnated with seeds at regular intervals. They don’t eliminate the need for thinning, but they do cut the process way down, in part by organizing the carrots into controllable rows, rather than the uncontrollable blocks I’d hand-seed.  For my second thinning, I’ve already started pulling sweet and delicious little carrots.  It’s wonderful! It’s thrilling! It’s as liberating as a dishwasher or hands-free mixer!

I now wanna go pre-fabricated with all my root crops.  But it seems that only radishes and carrots are available that way. Must ask the professionals down at the farmer’s market if they know any source for parsnips-on-a-strip.


  1. Due to heavy soil and a complete non-desire to rototill (or hand-loosen) soil to a depth of “10-14 inches”, I’m a carrot growing failure, too. Also, a radish growing failure (I rarely hold out long enough for a root to develop). Last year, though, my turnips ended up the size of my fist, even though I did everything wrong.
    This year, I have real radishes, but no turnips or other root crops.
    I . . . don’t understand at all.

  2. Carrot strips!? That’s the best thing I ever heard of! I have spent umpteen hours crouched over carrots this year, which were planted by a heavy-handed 11-year-old. The beets were easier to thin.

    The parsnips I germinated in a damp paper towel, transplanted to soil-filled toilet paper cores to get established, and then transplanted in the cores to avoid disturbing the tap root. They are not as robust as I would like, but they are certainly well-spaced.

    You can make your own liquid seed tape with water and cornstarch: To one cup of lukewarm water, stir in cornstarch one teaspoon at a time until the mixture resembles Cream of Rice–before it cools to rubber. Add your carrot seeds and fill a clean, plastic shampoo bottle with the mixture. Now you just sque-e-eze out lines of seeds

  4. I’m a seed thinly kinda gal. When I do radishes and turnips I plant each seed about 3″ apart. If there is a gap in my row when the seeds germinate I seed one seed there again. I never plant a huge crop of any one thing, but do successions, so fill in the gap works for me.

  5. Ah, the perennial gross motor versus fine motor debate in the garden. Yes, it sure is much more satisfying to spread compost by the wheelbarrowload, and much more frustrating seeding a row by the inch…but think of the payoff. I would say they were equal.

    That said, it’s time to employ the 5 year old. Her fine motor skills are quite sharp. Carrot seeds would be just her speed, but parsnips are larger and therefore more visible.

    Parsnip seed doesn’t age well, so strips might not be the way to go.

  6. Great piece, Michele. As for the whole ‘expert’ thing, I found this to be true when I was writing about the flower industry as well. People don’t understand how someone who isn’t an ‘expert’ can write about what they observe–but this is what journalists and authors do every day.

    Think about all the industries and endeavors that have amateurs, or fans, writing about them. Sports. Movies. Music. Wine. Food. Technology. Travel. A rowdy group of passionate fans and amateurs shouting from the sidelines (or from the field)? The more of that horticulture has, the better.

  7. Hah! I was _just_ thinking about Amy’s point this morning, in response to the troll who trashed her garden in her post the other day. Amy isn’t a garden professional, but she sure can write about gardens. I thought of all the science writing I’ve enjoyed over the years–Bill Bryson is quick to point out he’s hapless, but wrote a wonderful book about major scientific discoveries, anyway!

  8. Carrot strips! genius! I’m ordering some for next year — I hate thinning — I’ve been pretty good about it this year if only because by the time it warmed up enough for anything to grow, I was dying to get out there and do something, anything. I did plant a lot of carrots this year because last year I got lazy, and well, store carrots taste like cardboard. Now if I can only remember to thin them …

  9. Save for radishes and taters root crops are hard. How about Tom Thumb carrots or Danvers half long which can be grown in a planter as shallow as a window box……….

  10. As the troll mentioned above I have no problem with anyone writing about the experience of gardening or any other experience one has in life.

    But there have been a number of digs at the industry as a whole which I am here to defend.

    OK I was very obnoxious at first and will tone it down. The writers here wanted a horticultural revolution and to uproot the garden industry.

    Almost everyone swallowed the Kool Aid and no one fought back. Right off the bat the posts I read contained Monday morning quarterback statements about bad landscapes in New Jersey, higher prices this year on plant material and such. This is a very difficult business to prosper in from the growing end to the planting end. I love the fact that my stores are located right next to Lowes and Depot. It makes it easy for the consumer to see who has better stuff.

    I only write part time and do not pretend to a professional writer. JUst look at my typos. I know it is a tough business since there are people in India and other developing countries just chomping at the bit to undercut writers like the pros on this site. Just check out the auction sites soliciting writers jobs like elance.com.

    That said unless you are willing to give up weekends for three months or more in spring and work 70 hour weeks so amateur gardeners can write professionally about gardening experiences I will give these ladies a run for the money.

    I mean what good is a revolution if only one side shows up to fight.

    One if by Lamium and two if by Confrey………………..
    From the midnight ride of Paul Lawngear

  11. Here’s another suggestion for making your own seed tapes. At sewing stores, you can get sticky backed stabilizer which is used for machine embroidery. Cut two strips or squares of the desired length or shape and apply seeds to one piece and cover with the second piece – sticky sides together. I have a roll of the stuff that’s 12″ wide and 10 yards long. Makes a lot of seed tapes. Makes great gifts.

  12. Oops, forgot to mention that you need to get sticky backed Water Soluable stabilizer. There are several brands of it.

  13. Greg? Is that really you? I was ready to revolt and vote you off the island, but just look at you now. You’ve found a better way to disagree, and agree. I’m thinking you’re a nice guy after all. And I applaud you for removing some really nasty stuff about Garden Rant from your garden blog.
    Here’s the deal for me. I love Garden Rant, precisely for the reasons so eloquently spelled out by Amy. At first I was intimidated, because they write so well I thought all of their gardens must be perfect and that they always knew exactly what to do. Then I saw photos of Amy’s beautiful, wild, exuberant garden and said, hey, she’s fighting my battles for me and sharing it, albeit her garden is much prettier than mine. My garden is always in some kind of transition, and I kept thinking “some day I’ll get there; some day it will be finished.” Dang if I didn’t find out that what what I really am is a gardener and not a landscaper, and the garden, by God’s grace, is never finished. Professional landscaping is beautiful, but gardening is mine. I can afford it. I can do it with my own hands, get out there and sweat, make mistakes, and try something new with an inexpensive packet of seeds or roses I start from cuttings.
    I don’t expect to agree or disagree with these writers about everything, but they helped me to tap into my creativity, get back out into my garden and be willing to make some mistakes after a long, dark sad winter for my family. I started a blog. The first entry was a tribute to my dad. I garden in memory of him, in honor of my gardening mother who survives him, and, through trial and error, in celebration of the creative spirit that has healed my grieving soul.

  14. Yes it is really me the terrible troll who will shake you down for the coriander seeds from your cilantro and replace them with overly vigorous invasive chives!

    And yes I am a rally nice guy just ask the little old grand mas who HIT ON ME ALL DAY AT THE GARDEN CENTER!

    I even cook too (more than my wife does), baby sit when she wants a break from home schooling our three kids, do dishes and laundry and many other unmanly things. I just wish my wife would loosen up the leg irons every once in awhile those rings hurt a lot.

    I even spent 6 hours between last night and this morning putting together gourmet dips and sauces with herbs from the garden for a photography show I am currently showing in.

    I am still a troll but a nice one!

Comments are closed.