We 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.