Carrots 'n' peas a treat for man and garden

Two vegetables that fill the serving bowls on our dinner table at fairly regular intervals are steaming golden carrots and sweet, green peas. They go som well together. The tastes complement each other and the colors contrast appetizingly on the plate. More than that, they enjoy a great partnership in the garden as well.

In my garden, peas prepare the ground for the late-summer and fall-harvested carrots.As legumes, they add the nitrogen that stimulates early carrot growth, but more important, they improve the structure of the soil so that development of the carrot roots is encouraged.

A few years back I would grow spring peas and then machine-till or dig in the spent vines. They would readily decay in the soil and the carrots that followed would grow fat and sweet on the humus the decaying vines provided. More recently I have followed a no-dig approach, using peas as the initial crop -- and the results have been equally satisfying.

Early in the spring, I rake back the winter mulch of shredded leaves and cultivate the topsoil merely by raking the bed thoroughly to a depth of about an inch. After making slight furrows in the raked soil, I gently sprinkle in presprouted pea seeds and cover these with sifted compost.

Next, I return the old mulch, spreading it over the peas to a depth of about one inch.

It speeds up germination in the cold weather if the peas can be presprouted indoors. Do this by soaking the seeds in warm water for 4 to 6 hours. Now drain off the excess water and place the seeds between several layers of damp paper toweling.

Cover with a damp cloth. Whenever the cloth dries out, sprinkle lightly with tepid wateR. In the warm indoors the seeds will sprout in a few days, compared with the two weeks or more in the cold spring soil. Fortunately, while cold soil retards germination, it does not prevent the young plants from growing once the sprouting has taken place -- or at least, not to the same degree.

Sow the sprouted peas when the little white rootlet is between one-eight and one-quarter of an inch long. Longer roots run the risk of breaking off when being sown. Whatever the root length, presprouted seeds will require more gentle handling than their unsprouted brethren.

Harvest the peas in the conventional manner but do notm pull up the spent vines. It is important in this no-dig method to cut off the vines at the base, leaving the roots intact in the soil. Pea roots are extensive, and it is their presence in the soil that boosts microbial action and the activity of tunneling earthworms. Together they soften the soil for easy development of carrot roots.

The vine tops go onto the compost heap, while the bed is slightly raked to clear it of any mulchlike materials. Next, I cover the bed with a thin layer of sifted compost, sow the carrot seeds in the conventional manner, and cover these with another sprinkling of compost.

Ignore the stubby pea stems that protrude. The growing carrots will quickly hide them and they will rot away in a few weeks, anyway.

Carrots germinate best, I have found, under a cover of burlap. The burlap prevents the soil from drying out, and the additional warmth of the air trapped between the burlap and the seedbed promotes rapid growth. But once the bulk of the seed has germinated, remove the burlap. Do this in the waning hours of the day so as not to expose the tender shoots to a sudden, full blast of the sun.

By adopting this method the carrots have grown well and the soil has remained soft enough to harvest them by hand. With few exceptions they pull right out.

My soil, originally almost pure sand, now qualifies as light loam, after the application of copious quantities of organic matter over many years. It now is suited to the no-dig approach.

In other words, I am not recommending this method for as-yet-unimproved soils.

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