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Wednesday, 22 December 2010 20:39

Make love, not war, when you garden

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This is a good time of the year to order seeds and plant carrots.

That’s not a misprint: It’s an excellent time to plant carrots. Starting this week, if there’s a weather window allowing for it, go into the garden and pick a place for carrots. Pull a rake lightly across the selected bed, just enough to break up any heavy clods of dirt. Be mindful of not overworking the soil. The ground is very moist, more so now than at most times of the year.

(I’m going to wax philosophical here, so brace accordingly, or skip down to where I get back to the nitty-gritty of planting carrots in December or January.)

Good garden soil is a precious, wondrous thing. As such, it deserves your respect and careful tending. Generally speaking, the less the ground is worked, the better overall.

This holds true in the winter, when you barely work the soil at all. It holds true in the early spring, when the soil requires more amending and turning, but only just so and no more than that. And on through the gardener’s year, which in Western North Carolina can be for an incredible 12 months — if the gardener or farmer has enough energy, passion and willingness to experiment.

Gardening year-round does require paying acute attention to conditions as they really are, not as we might prefer them to be. And to developing, as commensurate experience is gained, what some might wrongly dub an intuitive feel. Don’t be deceived, or believe people at birth were given green thumbs or dark, black ones. Vegetable gardening is not an art — it’s a craft. Anyone with sufficient interest and the willingness to work hard can learn to garden. Or, for that matter, keep honeybees, raise livestock or write essays on a variety of riveting subjects such as these.

But I’m digressing within a digression. Let me find my way toward home (and planting those carrots) by noting I’m big on creating a partnership with your garden or farm. This approach is in stark contrast to how some gardeners seem to view gardening or vegetable farming. Each spring, these folks arm themselves as if for war with their tillers and tractors, synthetic fertilizers and lethal sprays. They start by pulverizing the soil. Next, they dump chemical fertilizer down as some sort of imaginary fertility insurance. The battle — and make no mistake about it, these are battles taking place within an overall war against the earth — is concluded when these gallant warriors have poisoned every living creature, great or small, helpful or harmful.

Gardeners and farmers of this ilk seem to believe they’ve forced the earth into doing their bidding. How very powerful, even godlike, that must feel. Unfortunately for them, this approach simply doesn’t work for long.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against tillers or tractors. Or using sprays and powders. Select methods that best match your garden and your philosophy. Hey, this is America after all.

Just, please, use powerful machinery and manmade chemicals mindfully and for thought-out reasons, not simply from habit, laziness or carelessness.

Kindness and gentleness in gardening is actually more practical: battling the earth simply doesn’t pay. The soil loses its vitality when overworked and over-fertilized. Indiscriminant poisoning kills good insects along with the bad (though one could rightfully argue there are no “bad” insects. In reality, even those insects with destructive habits serve as a useful signal we’ve gotten the balance out of whack. We might do better to consider why rather than reaching for a spray bottle).

Now, back to carrots. You’ve prepared a bed with due love and attention. Pull any weeds that might be successfully over-wintering. Using a hoe, or the handle of the rake, make furrows 4-6 inches apart. Sow the carrot seed with a heavy hand — no stinginess or frugality here, think joyful abundance as you plant.

This is because winter gardening is about increasing the odds. It’s a crapshoot, and seeding thickly substantially bolsters your chance of producing a lovely carrot crop that will wow your friends and send enemies cowering.

Cover the planted seed lightly with dirt, and pat it down. Put row cover such as Agribon 19 over the carrot bed. I use wire hoops to keep it suspended, but you could lay it down directly (though loosely so the plants have room to grow), and pin the cover along the sides using rocks. Row cover is simply a light fabric available through many garden centers, or you can order it from most seed companies. I’ve read of some thrifty souls using sheers for the same purpose.

It might take awhile, but the carrot seed will germinate. The little plants sit there, seemingly not growing at all, until the days get a bit longer.

On those nights it gets really cold — I’m talking, say, 17 degrees or lower — consider throwing a sheet or piece of plastic on top. Be sure, however, to remove the extra cover when conditions change for the better.

Don’t thin the plants until they are several inches tall, then thin to 1-2 inches apart. Come April or May, if all goes well, you’ll be eating carrots straight from the garden.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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