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  • Published: 20 June 2023
  • ISBN: 9780241558362
  • Imprint: Dorling Kindersley
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 192
  • RRP: $37.99

Rekha's Kitchen Garden

Seasonal Produce and Home-Grown Wisdom from One Gardener's Allotment Year

  • Rekha Mistry

Extract

The first time I successfully harvested my own carrots, I thought I'd moved up into some new echelon of the gardening world - not least because had taken me five years. "No chance," said neighbouring plot holders when I told them I was growing carrots, before explaining they are one of the hardest vegetables to grow because they end up riddled with carrot root fly maggots. I ignored their advice. What could possibly go wrong? You guessed it. My harvest became infested with carrot root fly.

It took another three years to find solutions that worked for me. The key was timing: knowing when to sow, when to thin, and even when to water to minimize pest attack. My research paid off and I now grow healthy, organic carrots.

Sowing

Carrots grow best in soil that isn't rich and the area where my winter squashes were growing is ideal. I dig over the ground lightly, then incorporate some horitcultural sand, which dilutes any remaining richness in the soil as well as producing a light, open texture. This allows the carrot roots to penetrate the earth and grow straight. Wonky carrots are usually caused by lumpy soil.

I sow my carrot seed in early March. The day before sowing, I rake back and forth then water the area using a can with a fine rose. Finally, I spread horticultural fleece over the surface to maintain soil heat. The scene is set.

The next morning, I move the fleece to one side and make three or five shallow drills, 1cm (1/2in) deep, spaced 5cm (2in) apart. I keep these short, no more than 30cm (12in), so there is room for two or three varieties along a single row measuring just under 1m (39in) in length. I then sow spring onion and carrot seed alternately, always starting and ending with spring onion drills (see Perfect partner). The pungent scent of the onion will help to mask the smell of carrot foliage, which is what attracts the carrot root fly. After sowing, I gently knock soil over the seed to back-fill the drill, then gently tamp down the soil to encouragethe seed to make good contact. Once all my seed is sown, I water it in, again using a can with a fine rose.

Finally, I re-cover the area with horticultural fleece. This helps to raise soil temperature, hastening the germination process. As soon as the seed has germinated, I'll remove the fleece, only to replace it with Enviromesh. This very fine netting allows light through, but not carrot root fly or other pests. I recently bought "beach-windbreak style" Enviromesh with pre-stitched sections for canes. Once I've inserted the canes I secruee them in the soil to create a perimeter fence around my rows. The top of the mesh sits above the height range of the low-flying female carrot root flies and my plants are well protected. I'll also set a few beer traps, since slugs love carrot seedlings almost as much as the carrot root fly does!

As the days begin to warm, I take futher precaution against carrot root fly by watering in the late evenings. When dusk falls, there are fewer flies on the wing and they have also become docile. This timing minimizes the risk of attack.

Thinning

Two weeks after germination, once the first true leaves have established, I start to thin out the carrot seedlings. As with watering, I carry out the thinning process at dusk when the carrot root fly is less active. I carefully thin out seedlings, leaving a space of 5cm (2in) between each when growing my favourite variety 'Touchon'. These produce large roots so I will thin out just once and not disturb the crop any further.

Harvesting

Seed packets usually advise you to harvest carrots 12 to 16 weeks after germination. However, I like to do a test harvest as early as 10 weeks, around mid-May, gently teasing one of two carrots out to see if I'm happy with the size. If not, I'll leave the rest to continue growing, even beyond the recommended date. As I've learned, these dates are just that: recommendations. They are not set in stone. In some years, I've had a harvest after 10 weeks; in others, my carrots have dragged their heels and I've waited until early June for a crop. I harvest with a little push followed by a little pull to release the root, then just brush off the soil with my hands.

I'll sow carrots again in June, never in the same place as the spring one but, apart from not needing to use Enviromesh, I follow the same process. These will be harvested from autumn onwards. With carrots that are still in the ground, I cut off the foliage then cover the row with a thick mulch of straw, topped with black plastic. Over winter I harvest the roots as needed.

Perfect partner: Spring onion

The female carrot root fly is deterred from laying eggs near my carrots by the strong aroma of spring onion foliage (see p34). As well as using mesh, I sow carrot and spring onion seed in alternate rows, esuring spring onion is on the outside to form an additional defensive barrier.

Garden tip

Getting to know the life cycle of a pest tells you when it is prevalent. Carrot root fly is first active from mid-May. The fly's second cycle is from August to September. Luckily, my June-sown carrot seed germinates quickly in the warmth and thinning is completed before August. Minimal disturbance will result in better crops.

Kitchen tip

Carrot cake is my go-to recipe when I've had a good harvest. That being said, I cannot resist the simple treat of tossing carrot batons in sunflower oil, a dash of soy sauce, and a pinch of paprika. Roasted on a high heat for 30 minutes until golden brown, the results are utterly delicious.


Rekha's Kitchen Garden Rekha Mistry

A unique, personality-driven guide to growing 40 allotment crops, accompanied by stunning photography from the author's own plot.

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