Carrots – The Panhandle’s Easiest Garden Vegetable?

Carrots – The Panhandle’s Easiest Garden Vegetable?

Carrots growing in a large container.

After tending a home vegetable garden for any length of time in the Panhandle, you begin to learn some things.  Tomatoes are awfully hard to grow.  Raised beds drastically lower the difficulty of gardening in general.  You should never plant mint in a permanent veggie garden.  Swiss Chard has to be started early because it grows as molasses creeps.  Of all of these anecdotal maxims I’ve discovered, the one with the most flavor return on my gardening investment is that carrots should always be a part of your cool season garden.  A fresh carrot out of the garden is hard to beat.  The difference between a grocery store carrot and one fresh out of your own garden is astonishing and will change your culinary life.  Though carrot season in Florida is just ending (my final batch was harvested yesterday), it’s the perfect time to learn about growing carrots here and plan to get some in the ground this fall!

There are a number of reasons to grow and eat carrots.  They’re obviously very healthy, though I dispute the whole eat carrots and you’ll have great eyesight thing – apparently I acquired the taste for them too late to help.  They go well in more dishes than they don’t.  However, the real two reasons you should supplement your grocery store carrot purchases with home grown harvests are that they’re so easy to grow and that there are so many more options than the standard long, thin orange varieties adorning the produce aisle shelves.

‘Bolero’ Carrots

Though carrots are remarkable easy to grow, they do ask a couple of things of gardeners.  They are a cool season vegetable and are generally planted from seed beginning in late August through early September in the Panhandle, though successive plantings can continue through at least February if you want to extend your harvest.  Also, like many other root vegetables, carrots don’t transplant well so direct seeding in the garden is a must.  But before you even consider seeding, care must be taken to make sure the soil bed you’ll be seeding in has been properly prepared.  One of the few ways to fail growing carrots is to not start with a loose soil free from any potential obstructions.  If the development of the carrot root is disturbed by anything during the germination and growing process (this includes manure aggregates or other clumpy soil, sticks, rocks or even a hard layer of soil hiding under your loose compost), the end product will be deformed.  To prevent this, thoroughly till your raised bed soil to at least 12” and break up any larger soil particles that are left with your hands.  If you don’t get your soil bed perfect though, fear not, deformed carrots are definitely edible, they just won’t look like they’re supposed to and are more difficult to clean and process!

Deformed carrots due to clumpy compost!

Once you’re ready to plant, I’ve found it easier on poor eyes and fumbling fingers like mine to sprinkle the tiny carrot seeds in shallowly furrowed rows 10”-12” apart and thin the seedlings later, rather than trying to individually space seeds the recommended 1”-3” apart.  Finally, these colorful little veggies love water and require good fertility.  To ensure good expansion of the edible root, maintain consistent moisture and fertilize at planting with a good slow release fertilizer.  Additional fertilizer applications may be required later in the growing season as most carrots take around ten weeks to gain maturity.

 

‘Sugarsnax’ (orange) and ‘Malbec’ (red) carrots

In this age of online catalogs, farmer’s markets, and demanding consumers who crave interesting food, the selection of carrot varieties available for gardeners to grow has never been better.  Among the hundreds of individual cultivar options are several broad types of carrots you’ll need to choose from.  You’re probably familiar with the Imperator types. These are the extra-long, durable carrots most often find in stores.  If you have a deep raised bed or other large container, Imperator varieties can be extremely rewarding!  I grew the Imperator-type ‘Sugarsnax’ this year and highly recommend it for ease of growing, size and flavor.  Next up are the Nantes types.  These carrots are medium length and cylindrically shaped.  Sometimes called “storage” carrots, these types tend to store well for long periods of time after harvest and retain their flavor well.  I’ve tried a few over the last several years and can recommend ‘Bolero’ and ‘Napoli’ with confidence.  There is even a carrot type for those of you with shallow raised beds (8” or less) that can’t accommodate the previously listed types!   Chantenay type carrots are excellent performers in these situations as they are generally a bit shorter and possess a conical shape with roots wider at the top and tapering to the tip, making a deep soil bed a bit less critical.  Finally, there are even some excellent cultivars of carrots in colors other than orange!  That’s right, you can grow white, purple, yellow, and even red carrots!  I’ve done very well with ‘Purple Haze’ (purple with orange interior), ‘White Satin’ (creamy white color), and ‘Malbec’ (deep, rich red) and highly recommend all three.  Keep in mind that the red and purple carrots tend to lose their color when cooked, so the greatest effect is seen when eaten fresh.  All of these cultivars can be found at nearly any of the numerous online and catalog seed retainers such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Burpee, and others.

As you can see, carrots are an easy to grow, extremely rewarding vegetable for the home gardener; give some a try in your raised beds next fall!  And as always, if you have any questions about growing carrots or any other gardening related question, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office!

 

 

Improving Soil Health, Suppressing Weeds, and Attracting Good Bugs

Improving Soil Health, Suppressing Weeds, and Attracting Good Bugs

Many gardeners plant a spring vegetable garden with a number of different vegetable types, which is excellent because a diverse and varied garden is proven to improve soil health. Intercropping is a gardening practice of growing different crops in the same field.  When planting a mixture of crops in the same field year after year, it is important to rotate the location of each type of vegetable.  This is a practice known as crop rotation.  Intercropping and crop rotation will help reduce insect pest populations, increase beneficial insect populations, and reduce weed populations .

Crop Diversity

Including plants that pest insects don’t like to eat in a garden forces the pests work harder to find what they find palatable. Studies have found reduced whitefly numbers on squash plantings mixed with a crop of buckwheat when compared to squash planted alone.  Another crop mixture that may be unintentional, but may be favorable, is a crapemyrtle stand along a garden’s edge.  Crapemyrtles will attract the crapemyrtle aphid which will attract predatory insects. When the predatory insects run out of crapemyrtle aphids to eat, they will move to the vegetable garden and begin to hunt pest insects.

Squash with living mulch of buckwheat. Photo Credit: Oscar Liburd, UF/IFAS Extension

Trap Cropping

A trap crop is a plant that attracts a pest insect away from your food crops.  Trap crops work best when planted at the garden’s edge, along a fence row, or in movable containers.  A bare space, let’s say 5 feet or so, should be kept between trap crops and vegetable plantings.  This will help keep the pests from moving desirable crops plants.  When a large population of pests are found on the trap crop then it is time to spray them with insecticide, or cut the crop down and remove or destroy the debris. If trap crops are planted in containers, then it makes them much easier to remove from the garden when necessary.

Cover Crops and Green Manure

Soil organic matter can be increased by the use of green manure and cover crops.  Cover crops are generally planted during the off-season, but they can be planted in between vegetable rows and tilled in at a designated time as a green manure.  Both cover crops and green manure improve garden production by:

  • Suppressing weeds by competing for water, light, and nutrients;
  • Holding the soil in place and preventing erosion;
  • Scavenging for nutrients that can be utilized in future crops;
  • Reducing nematode populations;
  • Providing a habitat for beneficial insects.

A mixed plot of cover crops and trap crops. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, UF/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

A number of different crops can serve as cover crops or green manure crops.  Most are legumes (bean family) or grasses.  A few that should be tried are:

  • Cowpeas
  • Sunn hemp
  • Sorghum-sudangrass
  • Winter rye

More detailed information on cover crops and green manure can be found at this link: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217.

Composting–A Great way to Start off the New Year

Composting–A Great way to Start off the New Year

Compost bins can be built or purchased and provide an easy means of recycling food and yard waste into valuable soil for a garden. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF/ IFAS Extension

What better New Year’s resolution could there be than to start recycling and do our part to preserve our natural resources?  By composting yard and kitchen waste, we can also get a jump-start on our spring gardening by creating your own mulch and fertilizer. Done properly, raw compost material can transform into nutrient-rich soil in just six weeks! A free source of “slow release” nutrients, compost also loosens tight, compacted soils and helps our often-sandy soils hold nutrients.

So what is compost?  Essentially, it is what’s left of organic matter after it’s been thoroughly decomposed by microbes.  Among the common compostable organic materials are leaves, grass clippings, twigs, pine straw, and vegetable/fruit peelings and coffee grounds.  When using these items, alternate by using brown (leaves, straw) and green materials (grass clippings, vegetables) in the compost bin to provide adequate carbon and nitrogen.   Table scraps containing meat, eggs or oils are not recommended because they can draw rodents and cause an odor. Eggshells are OK, but in general, use only kitchen scraps that are either plants or paper.

The organisms doing the actual composting are microscopic bacteria and fungi, along with earthworms.  The microbes need water, oxygen and nutrients to thrive. Rainfall will provide most of the needed moisture, although you may need to hand water the pile on during dry times. For the best results, keep the pile moist but not soggy; if you pick up a handful it should not crumble away nor drip water when squeezed.

To move oxygen through the pile, increasing decomposition and preventing odors, turn the pile on a regular basis with a pitchfork or rake.  Some companies sell compost bins in moving cylinders that can be turned with a handle. The process of decomposition will generate extreme heat (over 150°F in the summer) within the pile, which can kill weed seeds and disease-causing organisms.

Done correctly, composting does not smell bad, is very easy to do, and is a great way to do something good for the planet, your yard, and your wallet!  Learn more about composting at this University of Florida Extension article.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Slime Mold

I Ain’t Afraid of No Slime Mold

The plasmodium of Fuligo septica slime mold consuming bacteria and fungi inside the office worm bin. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Just when we thought we had our Leon County Extension vermicompost bins all figured out for recycling office food waste with the aid of worms…aliens invaded. I instinctively started looking all over for my “Ghostbusters” proton gun and backpack – but when they didn’t turn up, I decided to retreat and do a little research.

Fuligo septica moves as a mass of protoplasm about a millimeter an hour. Photo by Molly Jameson.

A mesmerizing bright yellow substance had taken over the entire top of the office worm bin, and when the lid was lifted, the yellow ooze was streaming down the inside of the lid and into the bin. Long, squiggly zig zags seemed to be engulfing nearly all the contents within the worm bin.

Unlike Ray Stantz’s reaction when he first meets Slimer devouring the room-service leftovers in the hotel hallway in the original “Ghostbusters,” we were all a little taken aback by our surprise intruder.

“Oh my! Will it kill our worms? Is it toxic? Where did it come from?”

Turns out our slimy yellow visitor was Fuligo septica; a species otherwise known as – and here’s hoping you’re not eating – dog vomit slime mold. A fitting name, indeed. To our amazement, Fuligo septica is not actually a mold (aka: fungus). Nor is it a plant, animal, or bacteria. It is actually a plastid, in the kingdom Protista and class Myxogastria, whose wind- or insect-spread spores converge and divide into a singular giant cell containing millions of nuclei, known as a plasmodium. These individuals come together to form a larger plasmodium and move as a mass of protoplasm, about a millimeter per hour, to feed on microorganisms living in decaying plant material.

I know what you’re thinking…this smattering of scientific terms has you right back in high school science class, and you’re feeling a bit woozy. But really – who needs science fiction movies like “Ghostbusters” when we have scientifically-explained neon slime molds all around us?

After a few days, Fuligo septica transforms into a pillow-like fruiting body in preparation for spore dispersal. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Besides the potential of Fuligo septica spores to be an allergen to those who are susceptible, this surprisingly common slime mold is not toxic to people, plants, or animals. It can be found on rotting bark and forest floors in nature – or on wood mulch in urban areas – normally when conditions are moist. The microorganisms the slime mold consumes are mainly bacteria and fungi, which are also very much present in the decaying food scraps and coffee grounds within a worm bin. And although Fuligo septica is harmless to people, it needs to watch out for us, as it is actually edible! Appropriately, another name for dog vomit slime mold is scrambled egg slime, as indigenous people in some areas of Mexico have collected the mold and scrambled it like eggs. Breakfast anyone?

Although real-life slime molds give Slimer a run for his money, the plasmodium blob of Fuligo septica will not stay its striking yellow amorphous shape for long. After a few days, it transforms into a pillow-like aethalium – a spore-bearing fruiting body like that of a mushroom – then degrades, darkens to a pinkish tan color, and finally releases its spores to start anew when conditions are right.

As the slime mold degrades, it darkens to a pinkish tan color, and releases its spores into the air. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Slime molds have stood the test of time, as analyses of their DNA has revealed they’ve been on Earth approximately a billion years! For reference, that’s hundreds of millions of years before plants or animals. And it’s a good thing Fuligo septica is here, because some of its characteristics has shown a lot of potential to be helpful, including as antibiotics, an ability to fight cancer cells, as antimicrobials, and environmental site remediation due to its ability to hyper-accumulate toxic heavy metals, such as zinc, and convert them to inactive forms. Scientists have discovered it’s the same yellow pigment that gives Fuligo septica its striking color that also forms a chelate with the heavy metals.

So, if you’re walking through a forest, down a path of mulch, or tending to your worm bin and come across this eye-catching, bright-yellow blobby creature, let this plasmodium do its thing. Probably better to scramble some actual eggs, lest your guests be squeamish.

Too Good to Waste

Too Good to Waste

Food is wasted along the many routes in our food system as it is grown, processed, transported, sold, stored, and prepared. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generates more than 37 million tons of food waste annually, 95 percent of which ends up in landfills or incinerators. That amounts to over 200 pounds of wasted food per every American every year!

Food waste in landfills combines with anaerobic conditions (lack of air) to create methane, a powerful greenhouse gas 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Landfills are responsible for 18 percent of total methane emissions in the U.S., which contributes significantly to climate change.

Waste waiting for the landfill. Ninety-five percent of the 37 million tons of food waste we produce annually ends up in landfills, when combined with anaerobic conditions, generates methane. Photo by Heidi Copeland.

Nationally, we can prevent and recover food waste by implementing techniques such as standardized food labeling, streamlined donations to foodbanks, the creation of secondary grocers, industrial composting, clean energy creation through treatment plant digestion, business and consumer education, and changing overall food policy.

But as a gardener, what can you do to help? If you grow fruits and vegetables, you are already helping, as this means the food from your garden did not have to travel long distances to get on your dinner table. If you actively compost your kitchen scraps, you are also helping, as Americans throw out nearly 40 percent of food purchased. Here are a few other simple life-style changes you might want to try:

  • Purchase more locally produced food. Buying local not only supports local farmers, but the food most likely used fewer resources than non-local food on its way to market.
  • Learn canning and pickling techniques. Homegrown fruits and vegetables are as fresh as you can get, and canning can then preserve this food for months.
  • Store food properly and keep perishables and leftovers in plain sight in the refrigerator so you see them every time you open the door. Investing in a good set of clear glass reusable containers can securely store leftovers, make them easier to identify, and can be safely heated for quick consumption.
  • Don’t throw out something just because it is past the date on the label. Unless it is baby food or formula – which federal law mandates be dated to ensure consumption when most nutritious – these dates refer only to peak quality. If the items do not show signs of spoilage, such as an off odor, texture, flavor, they are safe to consume.
Fall into Composting

Fall into Composting

A wooden bin is easy to use for composting kitchen and yard waste. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Fall is the time of year many of us spend countless hours raking leaves and pine straw, piling them up, watching kids jump into the piles (then re-raking!), and bagging them up for disposal. However, what you may not have considered is that all of those materials are ideal fertilizer for your lawn and garden.

Composting is an excellent way to recycle yard waste, and now that leaves are dropping, you’ve got plenty of material to recycle. Vegetable gardens and landscapes alike can benefit from a generous dose of compost now and then. A free source of much-needed nutrients in our often nutrient-poor sandy soil, organic-rich compost also loosens tight, compacted soils and helps them hold nutrients and water.

So what is compost? Basically, compost is what’s left of organic matter after microbes have thoroughly decomposed it. Among the compostable organic materials available to most homeowners are leaves, grass clippings, twigs, chopped brush, straw, sawdust, vegetable plants, culled vegetables from the garden, fruit and vegetable peelings and coffee grounds (including the paper filter) from the kitchen. Don’t add table scraps with meats or oils to your compost pile—meats especially will attract animals. Contrary to popular opinion, compost piles don’t typically smell—but if you do have an odor come from decomposing vegetables, turning the compost pile and adding dirt, grass clippings or leaves will eliminate any smell.

The organisms that do the actual composting are bacteria and fungi are microscopic, although you will also find worms and arthropods in a good compost bin. A number of companies sell “composting microbes,” but you don’t need them. Fortunately, plenty of these microbes are around already. To get started, just mix a few scoops of garden soil or compost from a previous batch into the compost pile will provide all the microbes you need to start the process. The microbes just need water, oxygen and nutrients to grow and multiply.

Rainfall will provide most of the needed moisture. You may need to hand water the pile on occasion, too, during dry times. For best results, keep the pile moist but not soggy; if you pick up a handful it should not crumble away nor drip water when squeezed. The right mix of organic matter can provide all the nutrients needed. Alternate using brown (leaves, straw) and green materials (grass clippings, vegetables) in your compost bin to provide the needed amounts of carbon and nitrogen. If the pile seems to be decomposing too slowly, raise the nitrogen level by adding a few more green materials or a handful of granular fertilizer. And the more you turn the pile, the faster it will decompose.

There are many ways to contain your composting materials, from a simple pile to a solar-heated, rotating bin and everything in between. For more information on composting and compost bin options, please see this University of Florida Extension article.