The lone voice of horticultural reason

Bill’s Carrots

5-8-1997 — One summer afternoon some years ago my wife and I were at a party with a dozen other couples at a friend’s house in south Minneapolis. Bill, our host, had started gardening just that spring and his first season’s efforts had resulted in a series of small, sporadic vegetable gardens–strips, patches and pockets of beans, tomatoes and something I couldn’t distinguish plunked down in his backyard wherever they didn’t interfere with fallout from his son’s sandbox or foot traffic to the barbecue.

Near the alley, in a narrow strip of pulverized city silt bordered on the west by his garage and a foot to the east by a concrete sidewalk, Bill had planted a row of carrots. Having spent much of his afternoon leading anyone remotely interested on a tour of his various horticultural accomplishments, he did have most of our attention when he announced, just prior to supper, that today was harvest day.

His carrots were ready. At least, according to the seed package. Out to the garage the entire entourage tromped, clenching our summer coolers and circling Bill as he invited us to witness the inaugural yield of his summer’s toil. He had planted an award-winning mid-summer variety, he informed us, which generally allocated finished specimens upwards to 12 inches long. I had already seen Bill’s carrot patch, and as the leafy tops protruding stiffly above ground were upwards to four feet high, sensed a season-long misfire.

Bill bent down, grasped one of these billowing carrot tops firmly with both hands, steadied himself, and gave a slow, even pull. A thimbleful of dusty soil was displaced with a whispered pufft as his first-ever carrot virtually leapt from the ground, a woody plug the color of cork and no bigger than a cocktail wiener. I cannot recall a more awkward moment.

Whether vegetables or flowers, success only begins with proper soil preparation. It isn’t complicated, it isn’t time-consuming, and you only have to do the big work once, so if a quick jog across your garden by the neighbor kid retrieving his t-ball doesn’t leave so much as a footprint, the next two weeks are a great time to “make beds.”

Nothing grows well in compacted soil. Roots not only need water, they need air; compacted soil stifles both. Good garden soil has enough sand and smaller rock particles in it so water seeps down through but must have high amounts of organic matter–finished compost, peat moss, composted manure–to retain some moisture around the roots and provide crucial nutrients.

Too many homeowners try their hand at gardening then quit when they become discouraged by the results, never realizing they either didn’t prepare new beds properly or the beds around the house they purchased were compacted and/or worn out.
Bill, on the other hand, recovered from his hangover and went on to become the successful vegetable gardener he is today.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener