Roots: The Unseen Force
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.