Right now my garden is soupy mud, intermittently frozen. But in my mind, it's already blooming.
Our garden daydreams are not idle. They give us vision. They can be help us see past our assumptions to our actual priorities. Consider this story:
My sister taught for many years at a small elementary school. Several years ago, the parents and teachers decided that a school garden would be a good thing, and they got together to plan it.
I wasn't optimistic. I'd seen several school garden projects that failed. The parents and teachers--or sometimes a non-profit group--had planned and planted a garden, expecting the kids to revel in eating the food and being out in nature. Instead, the kids viewed it as yet another chore foisted on them by the grown-ups, and the garden soon became a weedy wasteland. Often the food plants weren't ready to harvest until the kids were gone for the summer.
At my sister's school, things started to unfold in the usual way. They started to get donations and labor for the big garden project. "What food shall we grow?" people at the meeting said. "How shall we lay it out?"
But this time, the teachers took a different tack. They didn't want the grown-ups to have all the fun of planning and the kids just get stuck with the weeding. They realized how much learning would take place in the process of figuring out the garden. So they asked the kids to draw the garden as they imagined it would be.
In the kid's drawings there were no radishes. There weren't even tomatoes, and hardly any corn. There were big sunflowers, and a circus of colorful flowers, with butterflies, frogs, and worms. So the teachers and the kids learned about pollinators and butterflies, and they planned a butterfly garden. The donations and labor made the kid's plan come true. And it's still thriving (and a circus of colors) many years later.
This story says a lot about where to start with planning. And not just with a planning a new project, but with established gardens as well. Your first and biggest step is clarity. Clarity about what you really need, what you really want, and what doesn't work for you right now. Our needs and wants change. Sometimes our assumptions don't.
Here are three suggestions:
No matter where you live, any garden can benefit from more organic matter, and fall provides the best kind--leaves. Leaves are a fertility bonanza for the gardener. It's worthwhile to gather your neighbor's as well as your own. Crumbled or shredded leaves are even better. But whatever you do, don't burn them or throw them out!
Another good source of carbon is chipped branches. Leaves can be handled just like any other organic matter--use them for compost, for mulch, or for fermentation. Wood chips, on the other hand, do require slightly different treatment, so I'll go into them last.
Fallen leaves are my favorite mulch for vegetable beds, perennials, and bulbs. You can rake them up and pile them on your garden as a weed-suppressing mulch that enriches the soil. Or leave them where they fall, to fertilize lawns and flower beds.
Leaf compost has an excellent balance of nutrients, with lots of minerals, not just nitrogen. And because it feeds fungi as well as the usual bacteria, it promotes a wider array of microorganisms in your soil's food web. It's considered outstanding for seed starting mixes, because it contains gibberellic acid, which stimulates seeds to sprout.
Traditionally, professional gardeners gathered leaves and composted them separately to make a special soil mix for starting seeds. Leaves often compost slowy, because it can be hard for air to penetrate once they mat down. This can be an advantage when you use them for mulch, as they make a weed-suppressing blanket that has fewer gaps than most other mulches. This slower composting in a cooler pile means that leaf mold, as it's called, has more fungi rather than the bacteria that dominate hot compost.
Leaves also make a great addition to regular, hot compost. Just alternate leaves with other types of garden waste, and turn the pile to let in air.
Using Wood Chips
If you have a chipper, or can get chipped branches from a tree service, they are another great source of fertility. There are three important things to know about wood chips:
Wood Chips as a Natural Heat Source
One way to heat a greenhouse or provide bottom heat for seed-starting is with a wood-chip hotbed. Make a bin (pallets are perfect) three or four feet on a side. Fill it with thoroughly wetted chips. Within a month, it will heat up and provide even heat for a long time. You can set seed-starting flats on top, nestled into the wood chips to add warmth for starting tender seedlings. A couple of hoops and some clear plastic makes a heated mini-greenhouse, called a hot frame.
It is also possible to cover your hotbed with soil and grow plants in that. I have done this often with regular compost as the heat source. (Traditional hot beds were made with horse manure. The market gardeners who provided Paris with vegetables in the 1800's were able to grow 8 crops a year using this technique. And Paris is at the same latitude as Montreal!)
If I were using wood chip for this sort of hotbed, I would put cloth between the soil and the chips so they didn't mix. In a traditional bed, the compost is fully broken down by the time the crops are ready, but with wood chips, they wouldn't be ready to mix with soil. You would probably want to use them as mulch after the hotbed was done.
Another use of woodchip hotbeds is to produce hot water. A pallet bin inside a greenhouse with a coil of irrigation tubing buried inside can warm water which then circulates by convection to warm a growing bed. The amount of heat with these installations is variable, since the type of wood, the amount of moisture, the microorganisms available, and the ambient heat all play a part. This makes them great for adding a boost of heat to growing plants, but less appropriate for household hot water.
People have used large piles to heat water for household use, but it's experimental at this point, with no surefire formula available yet. If you are interested, try looking up the work of Jean Pain and his successors.
During last year’s heat and drought, the surprise successes in our garden were the carrots and Brussels sprouts we planted in ;ate July. The carrot bed gave us juicy snacks during the hot days of late summer and fall, and comforting soups and stews much of the winter. The Brussels sprouts, started later than the usual spring sowing, were extra mild and sweet when the sprouts matured in March.
August is the time to plant for fall. Most sources say July, but where I live, July is just too hot, too dry, and too punishing for me or for little seedlings. August is when the nights get a bit longer, a healing balm after the heat of the day. Plants naturally start new growth now, and spring bloomers may bloom again. Thinking about winter can be difficult, but it really pays. The kale you plant now can start giving food in September and be a mainstay on the table all the way through April. For most of that period, you won’t be worrying about watering or weeding, either, just picking the leaves as you want them.
Many of the most productive winter crops take a fairly long time to mature–and they need to be more or less mature when cold weather arrives. They will make very little new growth after October. Broccoli, Kale, Collards, and Cabbage are European brassicas that will need to grow large for good fall and winter production. Plant them as soon as you can. Purple Sprouting Broccoli esoecially needs to make a sizable plant before fall, then it survives the winter and makes a big crop of very tender sweet broccoli florets in early spring.
Peas take a couple of months for pods, but they're worth planting even if you don't get pods. The tender tips of the pea plants are delicious raw or cooked, and cost a fortune in fancy groceries. It's worth planting a plot or tub. Austrian Winter Peas make pea-flavored greens all winter. They are turned under or cut for compost in spring and build fertile soil all winter.
Other crops grow faster, but will not survive as long into winter. Fennel, Escarole, Radicchio, Endive, and Chinese Cabbage are autumn treats. They are all hard to grow in spring, because the increasing day length and warmth make them bolt. The waning day lengths of late summer are just what they need. You can sow them all through August for eating from September to the New Year, depending on the crop.
Most salad and stir-fry crops grow fast and don’t last. Sowings can start now, and go through September. Lettuce, Arugula, Cilantro, Mizuna, Tatsoi, Yukina, and other greens are in this category. Start a few now, and reserve some space for later plantings.
In my climate, root crops do not need full sun to do well, but they need dependable moisture. You can sow beets, turnips, onions, and rutabagas in flats or modules. Carrots and should be direct-sown. Soak carrot seed for 1-3 hours, rinse well, plant, and keep moist until seedlings are visible. Unless your growing season goes into the winter, parsnips and rutabagas may not get very big from August planting--they are often planted in spring for winter harvest. But a warm November can make all the difference, and in any case you can use greens and small roots in soup or stir-fry. Parsnips get the same treatment as carrots. A board or cloth over the soil helps retain moisture. (Check daily for sprouts.)
You’ll want to sow most of the fall and winter vegetables in flats, pots, or modules so you can keep them out of direct sun while they are small. Filtered light or morning sun are best for germination and early growth. Once they have a couple of true leaves, you can start getting them used to life in the open. When they outgrow their pots, you have several options.
A month from now, when your seedlings are ready for transplant, there will probably be areas that are no longer productive, or never panned out. For example, bush green beans give a few pickings and then quit. Don’t leave them in the ground. Pull them out and let your winter crops benefit from the nitrogen those beans have put into the soil. If there isn't enough space for your winter crops at their final spacing, turn the area you do have into a holding bed.
As long as there is adequate water and fertility, you can overlap crops. I have had great luck with planting kale and collards amongst winter squash vines. The young plants appreciated the cooler soil and partial shade in summer. When fall came the vines died down and acted as mulch. Corn plants can make a nice semi-shaded nursery for lettuce, spinach, endive, Asian greens, or peas. If they are still producing, give plenty of water and some compost to keep the double crop growing. If they have finished, they can still make a shade for seedlings or a trellis for peas. I like to plant beets or spinach under tomatoes, and lettuce or chard under pole beans.
Cool-season vegetables don’t like full sun in summer but will need all the sun they can get in fall and winter. When they are planted among summer crops, or near deciduous trees, that happens naturally. Often, the solution to one plant's problem is to be with other plants.
The spring planting is done. Perennials have reached their full size. I suggest five priorities for the garden.
First, this is the window of opportunity for planting direct-sown crops that love heat, and to add summer vegetables you may have missed or not been sure about. You can still plant most of the summer crops until July, and expect to get a harvest. Indeed, melons, okra, and peppers are just now getting the weather they need to thrive.
Tip: If you already have bush beans, basil, corn, greens, determinate tomatoes, and other crops with a concentrated or single-cut harvest, remember that you need to sow again for a continuous supply. We have a page to make finding these easy.
Once the soil is warm and your summer standards are growing, you might want to try something new, or give something that you didn't think you liked a new chance. Many of you grow the Three Sisters of Native American gardens--corn, beans, squash, (with sunflowers making the fourth sister.) They are good companions because there is a legume, a grass, a tall bush, and a groundcover. The African Sisters–okra, watermelon, sorghum, and cowpeas–are good companions for the same reason. They are just as easy and rewarding to direct-sow in warm soil. Indeed, if you haven't grown our okra varieties, you'll be amazed to find that they go from seed to stove in about the same time as lettuce, and make beautiful hibiscus-like flowers.
Second, add diversity to your garden. Once the main crops are in the ground, it’s important to add flowers, herbs, tea plants, foliage plants, and less-common vegetables to the mix. This is the best way to make your garden more pest-resistant, more beautiful, more dependable, and more fun.
Tip: Use the ends of rows and the corners of vegetable beds for a plant or two of annual flowers or herbs. Fill any empty spots with companions like coreopsis or dill that won't bother adjoining plants. Zinnias, tithonia, marigolds, coreopsis, and cosmos are easy to direct-sow, and will repay you with armloads of blooms for the house, the yard, and to attract pest-fighting insects. Herbs like dill, cilantro, and basil are fast, easy, and beneficials love them.
Third, grab a cold drink and really look at your whole landscape now that everything is leafed out. Are the paths getting crowded? Where do things look bare or boring? Where are the problem spots with weeds, drought, steep slopes, rocks, parking, or access? Are there pleasant places to sit both morning and evening? Is there enough shade for comfort and enough sun for growth? How about wind: Are the places where you’d like to relax or to grow things swept by wind, or suffering from not enough fresh air circulation? This is the time to see what works in your yard and what is keeping you from full enjoyment of the space. Sometimes, things have changed so gradually that we don’t notice how pinched and confined a space has become. Or we are so used to a fence, shrub, tree, or shed that we never think about what the space would be like without it–more or less private, useful, satisfying, or uplifting.
You should sort your observations into two levels: one for now and one for later. Major design issues like the layout of your garden, blocking or creating views, the routes that paths take, the location of sheds are major changes that will become part of your long-term planning. But there are also plans you can implement right away to make your garden more useful, inviting, and refreshing.
Tip: My favorite easy landscape hack is to line the paths with plants that have silver foliage. Silver plants are more drought-tolerant and wind-tolerant than others, and usually grow well in poor or compacted soil, which most paths are. They make the path easier to spot, and guide the eye along it naturally. At night, the effect is magical--it looks as if a moonbeam is lighting your way.
My favorites for for this are Rose Campion (which also has bright purple-red flowers on tall stems,) Wormwood, and Mullein. Among low beds of vegetables, they add a structure and height. They all make a stroke of silver that lightens a path, especially one with a background of trees, shrubs, and other large, dark plants. Silver makes flower colors more vivid, especially pinks. Other choices are sage, horehound, and lavender. Low-growing choices are oregano, wooly thyme, and mentuccia.
Fourth, observe how much sun your garden gets and modify it if necessary. Check out the How-To section for tips on using shadecloth when temperatures go above 85 degrees. Natural alternatives to shadecloth include cotton sheets, wood or bamboo latticework, taller plants, and planting to the east of buildings or trees. In this photo, a simple trellis with an annual vine on it (pole beans or morning glories are easy ones) creates a dappled shade. You can also create planting spaces in areas with natural shade, especially for small short-term crops like salad greens, which prefer some shade in summer.
Tip: Containers are a great way to grow salad crops under trees without trying to dig and plant among existing tree roots. A couple of tubs, boxes, or a small raised bed will give you a lot of greens over the course of the summer. Crops I recommend for containers in part shade are lettuce, chard, mizuna, sorrel, Vitamin Green, mustard, and peas--both for pods and for pea shoots.
It may be that when you look at patterns of sun and shade, you find that there is too much shade. This is not uncommon in established neighborhoods, where mature trees have gradually closed in the canopy. You won't want to take trees out without a lot of consideration. But sometimes a single branch is overhanging or blocking the sun, and it can be trimmed. Often the problem is just a shrub that has gotten bigger over time and has outgrown it's space. With shrubs, (and trees as well,) proper pruning can prolong their life, make a healthier plant, and result in more flowers. The key is to remove whole branches down to a major trunk--or to the ground for multi-stemmed shrubs. Cutting or clipping branches to a stub results in an ugly, unhealthy, and even more uncontrollable plant. Always cut back to a crotch, a Y, or the ground.
eFifth, look carefully for signs of disease or pest problems. Aphids are usually pretty obvious, and if you have a healthy garden, their predators will show up quickly to eat them up. The key is to wait--it takes a few days for predators to find them, and then to multiply. They will, however, if you have provided a poison-free, predator-friendly garden for them. The ladybug at left is busy eating aphids, and has left many empty gray shells already.
Tip: Check for hard-to-see pests like whiteflies, thrips, and spider mites. Alyssum, dill, cilantro, and phacelia are excellent attractors of predators that eat them. Our Summer Companion Collection and our Spring/Fall Companion Collection contain dependable attractors of pest-eating insects.
When you have waited for a couple of weeks, but the problem is still increasing, you often will get good results by spraying a mixture of compost tea with a bit of seaweed extract. This helps in several ways. It physically washes off small pests. It coats the leaves with beneficial microbes that compete with pests, and it gives the plant's immune system a big boost, so it has the strength to fight pests off. Repeat every three times at 3-day intervals. If it is just one or two plants, sometimes it's best just to take them out. The pests are telling you that they are not healthy, and won't be as nutritious as stronger more vibrant plants. Sometimes you see this when gophers or voles have damaged the roots. Sometimes it is a soil issue. In such cases, take the hint and improve situation rather than fixating on the pest.
One exception is tent caterpillars on fruit trees. They don't just eat the leaves this year--they kill the growth points for following years. If there are just a few, cut off the twig they're on and throw it away or burn it. If there are many separate colonies, use Bt, (Bacillus thuringensis,) a natural bacteria that interferes with their digestion.
Now, when things are growing fast, everything can change quickly. It helps to remember that only half the work of gardening is physical. The other half is thoughtful observation.
I want to talk about landrace varieties, a big topic lately in the permaculture, organic gardening, and regenerative ag worlds. To set the stage, I'm going to digress a minute, but bear with me. I'll be back to gardening in a couple of paragraphs.
Much of the modern world is made possible by standardization. From construction to cars, from computers and medicine to shoe sizes, a safe and reliable product needs to be precise and predictable. To make that predictable result, we reduce the number of variables. In our technologies, we want the simplest process, the fewest components, and the most uniform result. Like any successful formula, this approach has limitations.
In the living world, long-term reliability emerges instead from complexity, uniqueness, and unpredictability. The more species in an ecosystem, the more stable it is. The more genetic diversity in a population, the more chances it has to adapt to new conditions and stresses. We understand this with animals: inbreeding leads to problems down the road. That applies to plants as well.
Much of modern seed production has focused on producing a very uniform, predictable plant every time. We can all see the worth of some predictability, at both a farm and garden scale. If you have a raised bed that fits 45 plants and 10 of them taste bad or don't produce, you've wasted a lot of time and space. A higher level of uniformity might be needed by a farmer with a contract for 1000 heads of lettuce on a specific date. Taken to an extreme--and the market tends to take any trend to an extreme--this has led to a focus on predictable behavior in the field and cosmetic uniformity in the market, to the exclusion of other traits.
Many of us got into gardening to escape this situation. But we are discovering that even if we grow our own lettuce in organic gardens, it's going to taste much like grocery store lettuce if we use the same seeds that the guy who sells to the grocery store uses. I see this at my farmers market--lettuce that is locally, organically grown, looks gorgeous, and tastes like cardboard. Or varieties at the local hardware store that only do well if the temperature never goes above 85 degrees, while the temperature outside the store is in three digits much of the summer.
Landrace varieties are a big topic right now because they offer an alternative backed by a long tradition. They are a way for ordinary people to start breeding plants that cope with big survival issues like drought and climate change rather than the market issues that most professional breeding programs are focused on. And, to be honest, they offer a name that's more catchy than "open-pollinated, locally-adapted, public-domain varieties," which is what those of us who care about this stuff have been limping along with.
A landrace is a plant or animal variety that has been grown in one region for a long time and is adapted to the physical (soil, temperature, rainfall) and cultural (planting, harvesting, storage, and cooking) needs of that region. It is normally not the product of formal breeding programs, but of farm-based seed stewardship and often of geographic and cultural isolation. Mexican corns, Peruvian quinoas, Italian greens, Sri Lankan rices, Afghani cannabis, African melons, and Turkish tobaccos are some types of landrace crops that you may have heard of.
With traditional landraces, local farmers select seed plants with several important traits in mind (perhaps earliness, cold-hardiness, or suitability for a certain recipe.) What the community values might not be obvious to a seed company or university breeder. For example, there are corns in Guatemala with stalks almost as hard as wood. They have been selected by the farmers because it allows them to grow both food and fence posts with the same crop. Other traits that are not important to the community can vary widely, because uniformity is not the goal. There may also be some gene flow between cultivated crops and wild relatives near the fields. Thus landrace crops often preserve traits that allow them to adapt to changes from season to season.
Landraces typically have yields somewhat lower than modern high-production varieties, but they are able to produce that same yield under both favorable and unfavorable conditions of weather and pest pressure. (In their home region--no landrace is adapted to every environment.) Landraces offer predictability not of size, looks, or days to maturity, but of survival--that there will be a modest but dependable harvest in both good years and bad. This is the kind of predictablity needed by subsistence farmers in the past and by all of us now.
What we call heirloom varieties are sometimes landrace types that are being grown outside the land that shaped them (an example might be Kaslasa quinoa.) Most heirlooms available on the American market are more highly selected and uniform in maturity, color, flavor, yield, size, and so on, but the line is a hazy one.
While landraces are more diverse than the typical variety, they are not random. Nor are they wild plants. Farmers select their landrace varieties very carefully for traits that are important to them. For example, some parts of Central America have two traditional landrace corns--one that produces small, early, dark-colored ears on short plants; another with long, white ears on taller, later plants. They have maintained these two landrace varieties side-by-side over centuries by careful selection and maintenance, in spite of the fact that corn is wind-pollinated and crosses easily with other corns even at long distances. They prevent crossing and mixing of the two by using only the seed from early-matured dark corn and late-matured white corn, carefully excluding seed from plants of medium maturity that might have have been pollinated when pollen from both types could be in the air. Seed from these medium-maturity plants, and from both ends of the cob where the kernels are smaller, are used for food rather than seed.
So what's the story with the modern "landrace gardening" seeds that are showing up in seed companies, books, and online forums?
A number of us see genetic diversity as key to a more dependable food supply and a more sustainable agriculture. One approach to preserving and re-introducing diversity is to deliberately create new landrace varieties. This usually involves gathering many varieties of a crop that are available from companies, libraries, seed banks, and swaps, then letting them cross. (Many breeding projects start this way, not just landrace breeding projects.) The idea is that this "wide cross" or grex, will provide a lot of possibilities. If the cross is wide enough, it will include most of the traits available to that variety, which you can select from. Some will work, some will die, and some you'll keep for seed. This is called "mass selection". Once you've grown and saved seed for several seasons in one place, you'll have a variety better adapted to that place. If the selection process has allowed quite a bit of diversity while adapting more and more to thrive in your conditions, you might have a new landrace for your region.
This is a big deal if your situation has unusual stresses that common varieties are not prepared for. An example of this process is Dave Christianson's Painted Mountain Corn. He gathered every corn he could find in the 1970's, including some that are now extinct, and allowed them to cross, then subjected the subsequent crops to his brutal Northern Montana climate. The result is a short, early flour corn that can sprout in cold soil; survive heat, cold, and drought; and mature very early in spite of terrible conditions and low fertility. If you can't grow Painted Mountain, you probably can't grow any corn at all. On the other hand, it's not the best-flavored flour corn, and the ears are quite small--the price of extreme earliness. Carol Deppe has used it in her breeding work, this time selecting for her (also difficult, but different) Oregon conditions and for flavor, leaving in as many other variables as possible.
If you live somewhere that more closely approximates great corn growing conditions--good soil, plenty of water, and a long season--you don't need Painted Mountain's particular strengths. You might want a landrace for your climate, with resistance to the pests and diseases that often come with more moisture, but variable for color and other things. Maybe you need a taller, later variety that can support pole beans in a Three Sisters garden with very strong side roots to prevent lodging (falling over) under the weight of those beans. Over time, the new variety emerges from the interaction of your soil and climate with your goals.
Note that the original wide cross is not the landrace. (It's a cross, a grex, a genepool--there are several related names.) The genepool is the first step toward developing a new variety. It becomes a landrace after it's been shaped by the soil and climate to fit the land where it grows. A landrace variety, like any other variety, is formed both by climate and by human choices.
For the farmer or gardener--or for a farming and gardening civilization--there is a balance to be struck between the undeniable economic and culinary benefits of breeding for consistent traits and the adaptability of a more variable population. We know that a mutt may be more vigorous and trouble-free than a highly inbred and specialized breed. However, we also know that if we want a duck fetched out of a freezing lake, we need to have a retriever on hand.
Landrace gardening is one facet of open-pollinated, public domain breeding, one that prioritizes diversity and adaptation to local conditions. The most hard-core landrace gardeners use little or no soil amendment, irrigation, or pest control, because that's the fastest way to arrive at a variety that doesn't need those inputs. They are working toward future survival, and it's a very worthy goal. Other breeding projects might prioritize something more immediate, like flavor, ease of preparation in the kitchen, storage without refrigeration, or a crop that's ready to harvest when the farm isn't swamped with other work. Any breeding program that selects plants under organic, small-farm conditions is a positive gain.
At a time when herbicides, chemicals, and identical F1 hybrids are the norm in agriculture, it's important to recognize the value of all who are working toward a resilient organic future. We need a diversity of people and projects as well as of genes! Dogma is not adaptive. We need many hands, many minds, many cultures, many approaches and many goals to build a food system that is flexible enough to be viable now while adapting gracefully for the future. Landrace gardening is one tool toward that end.
Quail Seeds carries a number of older heirlooms or landrace varieties, modern genepools, breeders' mixes, and variable species. You can see several here.
If you'd like to participate in developing a modern landrace, I suggest getting in touch with the folks at Going to Seed, a non-profit that helps people with both seeds and training, most of which is available at a sliding donation rate. Or donate to help further their work.
You can also access wide crosses at the Open Source Seed Initiative's website. Their OSSI Varieties page has a filter feature that allows you to see just finished varieties or just "breeders mixes." Choosing breeders' mixes shows you varieties and genepools that the breeder considers variable enough for further selection. Again, consider a donation to further their work.
Here in Northern California, we've finally gotten a sunny break. I'm using tarps to cover and kill weeds that have taken over during the long rains. The soil is too wet to dig, but tarps or cardboard can kill weeds without tilling or digging.
I'm also taking advantage of the wet soil to plant the carrot family. Their seeds naturally have compounds on the surface that must be washed off before the seeds can sprout. These germination inhibitors make carrots, parsnips, and parsley slow to sprout. In my usual dry spring weather, it's hard to keep the seeds from drying out during that long sprouting time.
In their ancient home in the mountains of central Asia, melting snow would wash the seeds and provide enough water to get established. Then as the dry season advanced, these long-rooted crops had an advantage in finding water. That makes them a good choice in water-conscious gardens today--especially if they're planted where there's some afternoon shade during the hot months. In my hot summers, root crops do well on the east side of deciduous trees--fruit trees or even walnuts, as the carrot family is not susceptible to walnut (juglone) poisoning.
I plan to soak the seeds for a couple of hours, rinse well under the tap (in a strainer) and plant in a bed that has been kept weed-free by mulch (pulling the mulch aside.) A light application of compost or crumbled leaves over the seeded rows should prevent surface drying while the seeds germinate. I like to leave the straw mulch heaped up on either side of the row to shelter the row from wind.
Carrots, parsley, and especially parsnips can still be slow, so some people intersperse them with radish seeds, which sprout quickly and mark the rows' location. They will be ready to harvest by time the carrots or parsnips are up, but take care not to damage your carrot seedlings. Twisting (rotating) the radishes before you pull upward will leave small root hairs in the ground, and disturb the soil around the carrots as little as possible.
Root crops have another advantage for busy gardeners. Many, if not most, summer crops have a narrow harvest window--we all know how far out of hand an overripe zucchini can get! Corn, green beans, tomatoes, and many other crops must be used or preserved right away. Roots are different--they hold well underground, slowly getting bigger. They take some of the pressure off, and even-out your harvests so there's always something to pick. (Just remember to keep replanting to have replacements for what you pull.)
There are 3 other kinds of roots in our gardens. I've written here about what they are and how to manage them.
"Plant to Suit the Roots."
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.