Gardeners of a particular era will remember pulling a carrot out of the ground, wiping it across their pant leg and enjoying the crunch of the first carrot harvest of the season. Carrots are easy to grow and are the very last crop we pull from our garden in the fall.
There are climates warm enough to store carrots in the ground all winter, but my spouse made me promise never to do that again. He said it wasn't effortless chopping them out of the frozen North Dakota soil.
When people tell me they have no luck with carrots, I can safely assume a few things they are doing incorrectly. First, germination of those tiny seeds takes a little doing, and second, you must thin them early, so they have more room to grow.
Today's carrot is a relative of wild Queen's Anne lace, and that is apparent if you have ever forgotten to dig out a carrot and it goes to seed. Carrots are biennial vegetables and do not produce seeds the first year. However, if you leave that carrot in the ground and it does go to seed, lookout – you will have rogue carrots everywhere.
Before we plant those lovely carrots, we should choose a variety. And there are many varieties of carrots, each with its own set of healthy vitamins. Orange carrots are considered the most healthy because of alpha and beta carotene, which gives them the orange color. Before cultivated garden carrots were available, a wide array of colors grew in the wild – white, red, yellow and purple.
I love purple carrots, and two of my favorites are Purple Haze or Cosmic Purple, as they are purple through and through. Some carrots only have purple skin that turns orange when heated.
Carrots need well-worked light soil to grow correctly. If your carrots have "legs," your soil is too hard, impenetrable by the root, so it begins to grow in any direction it can. There's nothing wrong with these vegetables, but cleaning takes longer.
Carrots also don't mind a little cold weather and can be planted three weeks before the last frost and harvested after a fall freeze, or in our case, that October blizzard.
Now about planting those tiny seeds. First, wet your furrow well. The moisture will keep those seeds on the ground until you get them covered before our famous North Dakota wind carries them to South Dakota. If you are covering your rows with soil, make sure it is not too deep. Rather than bury my carrot seeds, I use some well-dried and chemical-free grass clippings to cover the rows. This keeps them moist until they germinate, and you can remove the grass when seedlings are an inch or taller.
Since I love to experiment, which is how gardening works – whatever works for you is the correct way. Someone posted a video on a Facebook group about gel-planting carrots. It sounded ingenious, and I thought I would try it myself.
Soak your carrot seed in water until you can see at least one seed germinate. This will not happen overnight, so plan. Using one tablespoon of cornstarch to one cup of water, cook until thick – you know, as in gravy. Allow to cool. Then drain the water off the carrot seed, mix with the gel in a heavy zip-lock bag and cut off the tip. Pipe the ingredients into the furrow. The seed flows out fairly evenly, and the gel will keep it moist until it settles in. Okay, so I didn't have much luck with the bag; I found a squeeze bottle for frosting, cut the tip a little bigger and like mustard on a hot dog bun, I spread those carrot seeds.
It was so much fun.
After those babies germinate and stabilize, they need room to grow. Thinning row crops was such a painful lesson to learn when I began gardening independently, but it is the key to good-sized beets, radishes and carrots. Using manicure scissors, I get down to their level and clip out every other plant. This accomplishes thinning without disturbing the soil and uprooting the ones you are expecting to produce. It also makes some people crazy, lying in the garden like that.
If you garden in a box, select a short fat carrot variety like Scarlet Nantes. Most of those boxes, the ones on the legs, are not too deep. And, go ahead and do it; it's not too late to plant carrots. My mother used to plant her entire garden at the end of May, and everything produced just fine.
Live a little and try planting a package of rainbow-colored carrots this year. Eat them along the way, but if you wait until after the first good frost to harvest the bulk of them, the flavor will be sweeter. In the fall, we will talk about recipes and storage for your colored carrot crop.
Rhubarb pie season is here
Rhubarb is a North Dakota thing. I've traveled across the country in my early years as an artist and met so many people that had no idea what rhubarb pie tasted like. I heard it was sometimes called "truckers pie," but how could you not know about this delightful vegetable?
That is correct; rhubarb is not a fruit but rather a vegetable. If you visit any old farmsteads in this state, you will most likely see that if nothing else survived abandonment, the rhubarb did.
As children, we played under the canopy of enormous rhubarb stalks. My mother was a master at making rhubarb everything in the spring to use its prolific green stalks. Since that time, I have learned that the red stalks, as in Canada Red Rhubarb, are sweeter. But I think it's the color that makes me gravitate towards that variety. When you make strawberry rhubarb jam, the color of the red rhubarb enhances the overall color of the jam. As you know, rhubarb sauce made from the green variety turns a dull color when cooked. But who's looking if it tastes good?
Varieties of rhubarb were discovered in ancient China. It was used for medicinal purposes during the plague and given as gifts to the king. Many historical events surrounding ancient Chinese rhubarb can be found at: http://www.rhubarbinfo.com/rhubarb-history.html.
So how did it get to North Dakota?
According to the website for the "Rhubarb Capitol of the World" in Sumner, Wash., rhubarb was smuggled to Seattle in 1893 by Adam Knoblauch from Eastern Europe. There's a complete recounting of the growth of rhubarb production in Washington at the website: http://www.ci.sumner.wa.us/Rhubarb/History.htm.
Another theory is the German people tasted rhubarb while in China, and as they say, the rest is history. If the Germans loved rhubarb, they undoubtedly brought it with them to North Dakota when they settled in the state.
Rhubarb, and Germans, are cold hardy making it a perfect plant for our 3a and 3b northern part of the state and the more fortunate gardeners in 4a and 4b.
Rhubarb is usually the first edible perennial to appear in the spring and produces until temperatures reach 90 degrees in the summer before going dormant.
The large-leafed plants will thrive in well-drained soil of almost any type but prefer organic matter in slightly acid soil. Fertilize new growth in the spring with either a commercial mix or well-aged manure.
The best way to grow your own is to find someone to share their old rhubarb cuttings. If you cannot obtain cuttings from your friends or relatives, you can purchase plant roots. It takes too long to grow healthy rhubarb from seed, so it is not recommended for the home gardener.
Space the root cuttings two feet apart if you need more rhubarb than one plant can provide. Once established, it is a prolific producer and will continue to grow new stalks until it becomes too hot. Continually pulling the seed head that grows from the middle will keep your plant producing until it gets too hot.
Usually, one or two roots will provide enough rhubarb to eat fresh and freeze for winter. Do not pick the first year's crop; the roots need those leaves to become established. As your plant becomes larger and the roots more crowded, you can easily separate and share the cuttings or start new areas.
In addition to being easy to grow, studies show that rhubarb has anti-cancer properties and, when eaten fresh, is a good source of fiber. The acid in a cold piece of fresh rhubarb can counterbalance stomach acid. Some also believe that rhubarb extract can alleviate hot flashes.
This excellent plant also has anti-bacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties, which would explain why the Chinese valued this fruit for treating almost anything that ails
However, there is a toxic chemical in the leaves, so you do not want your animals or children to ingest them. They do, however, work very well for concrete birdbaths and other fun art projects.
Around here, we love rhubarb pie made in a fashion similar to apple with fresh fruit, sugar and cinnamon.
If you prefer a custard-type rhubarb pie, here is an alternate recipe from my mother. She used to make pies, juice, jellies and more from her rhubarb patch that may very well still be growing in the lot of our former family home in Fredonia.
Rhubarb Pie Filling
My mom, Lorraine Meidinger Kaseman's recipe
2 cups cubed rhubarb
1 ½ cups fine bread crumbs
4 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups sugar
Brown bread crumbs in butter, add beaten eggs and sugar, mix with rhubarb and pour into 9-inch pie crust. Bake at 425-degrees until firm.
Sue B. Balcom
Writing, or maybe talking, comes naturally to me and under the guidance of a great newspaper editor I have acquired skills that led me to author four books.