Photo by Rachael Brugger
Nearly every gardener faces a nemesis or two, and not necessarily in the form of aphids or fusarium wilt. Sometimes it’s a particular plant or plant family that proves difficult to grow and seemingly fights the gardener every step of the way. If members of the Apiaceae (carrot) family are your horticultural Achilles’ heel, don’t lose hope. It isn’t difficult to grow plants from this family, and there are some top-notch varieties that are sure to please.
The Apiaceae family, sometimes known as the Umbelliferae, Umbel, carrot or parsley family, is an expansive group of plants that spans more than 3,000 species and encompasses everything from carrots and parsley to dill, fennel and Queen Anne’s lace. Vegetables in the Apiaceae family require some patience to grow because they tend to be slow to germinate and mature. But if you’re willing to provide some special care, you’ll be well on your way to reaping an unforgettable Apiaceae harvest.
Because the vegetables of the Apiaceae family often require a lengthy growing season, you’ll want to get started early. A few weeks prior to your average last-frost date, start vegetables like celery indoors, and plant root vegetables like carrots and parsnips outdoors. (Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep in rows 12 to 24 inches apart.) Start with fresh seed—this is imperative for parsnips, as the seeds typically don’t stay viable for longer than one year.
You’ll also want to choose the appropriate location to plant your seeds. Heirloom carrots do best in deep, loose, well-drained soil, says John "Farmer John” Fendley, founder of the Sustainable Seed Company.
"They need loose, friable soil to break the surface when seeded,” he says.
He also suggests steering clear of soil that is stony or hard—carrots and parsnips need plenty of depth and room for their roots to grow. While carrots, parsnips and celery benefit from soil with a similar pH (roughly 6.0 to 7.0), celery grows best in heavier soil that contains more moisture than is required by carrots and parsnips. Raised beds are an option for growers in areas with clay or other hard soils.
"They are an ideal location to grow carrots,” Fendley says.
According to Garry and Wendy Lowe, of Twin Meadows Organics Farm in British Columbia, one of the biggest problems gardeners face is learning to plant so that thinning won’t be required later. Even the most careful gardeners planting carrots in rows end up having to thin the plants. To avoid the extra chore, the Lowes use planting boards (detailed on their website) to seed all root crops. While this requires more time up front, it pays off later in the season with less weeding and thinning. Parsnips are particularly sensitive to thinning or hard weeding near the root because they have a tendency to form a less uniform root if disturbed, the Lowes say.
If you still need to thin your carrot or parsnip plants after careful planting, Findley suggests culling the weakest-looking seedlings from your rows.
"Leave about a 4-centimeter space around each remaining seedling. Repeat the thinning in three to four weeks,” he says.
Weeding and watering are additional considerations. Carrots and celery require a lot of moisture, while parsnips can get by on less. Light mulching—in the form of a thin layer of grass clippings—can help keep the ground moist. In order to maintain a sweet, well-formed root, it’s also important to keep the garden well-weeded and in constant moisture, according to the Lowes.
When we begin harvesting Apiaceae vegetables depends on the variety you’re growing.
You can begin harvesting carrots when they’re approximately finger-sized or wait until they are fully mature. The date of maturity depends on the variety, but it is usually between 60 and 75 days. You can begin harvesting finger carrots two to three weeks earlier than others.
For parsnips, you might want to wait until after a frost to harvest, as the flavor sweetens after a cold snap. Some gardeners prefer to overwinter parsnips and harvest them in the spring.
You can begin harvesting celery stalks when they reach 8 to 12 inches long. Crop rotation is vital to reduce risk of soil depletion and the incidence of diseases, such as root-knot nematodes, black rot and powdery mildew. Don’t plant members of the Apiaceae family in the same place you planted them in the previous two years. Rotate locations with other vegetable families, such as cucurbits or nightshades.
Harvest herbs like dill and parsley before the plants blossom to encourage growth.
With so many delightful varieties, it’s easy to see why people include members of the exceptional Apiaceae family in their market-garden offerings. So many farmers’ market vendors focus on tomatoes, summer squash and other popular crops. An attractive display of Apiaceae produce can set you apart from other vendors and provide customers with a delightful change of pace.
About the Author: Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2013). She raises Welsh Mountain Ponies in northern Wisconsin and enjoys gardening, especially heirloom vegetables.