One of our favorite winter activities here is coming inside from the cold, brewing a cup of tea, and poring over seed catalogs! Not only does growing food for 150 people give us the opportunity to order a whole lot more seeds (it’s always so hard to pare down that home garden order!), but it is a chance to compare some of the many different varieties and see how they work in our somewhat unique production system.
In the summer of 2015, we chose to focus for a second year on carrot, beet, and cabbage varieties from several New England seed suppliers, including our friends at High Mowing Organic Seeds, who have supported our variety trial for the past couple of seasons. As we finish up the seed order for 2016, we look back at our observations and measurements, to help improve the quality and quantity of our production for the Sterling Kitchen.
Early fresh eating carrots are a fairly minor part of our production picture, though we have been encouraging the kitchen to put out freshly harvested and washed carrots on the snack table. No-one can resist these sweet crunchy treats when they’re fresh out of the ground, and I think we’ll use more next summer. Nelson and Jeanette led the pack, for eating quality and yield, so they will be our mainstays for the coming summer. We’d also like to grow some Yayas which didn’t make it into the trials last summer. We rated the six early varieties we did grow for a range of production factors, including: top strength, disease symptoms, physical damage (breakage during harvest and handling), sunburned shoulders, and overall appearance.
Most of our carrots are eaten from Fall through winter, when regular classes are in full swing, and garden production slows. Carrots grow well for us, and we eat a lot of them – around 60 lbs per week, on average. We know we could grow more than we do, but the first step is to improve washing and storage facilities, in order to handle all those beauties. A new 432 square foot wash house will be outfitted this summer.
Through our trials, we learned that there is a lot of variation in yield from one carrot variety to another. This may seem self evident, but even within a single type of carrot (Nantes, for example), we saw yields ranging from 76 to 350 lbs per row foot. In our harvest, Bolero was tops for yield and taste, so it will become our staple late season variety.
However, diversity is important, too. The blind taste tests taught us one thing for certain–different people have very divergent tastes. What was top for one taster might be dead bottom for another. Some folks like sweet, while another looks for the perfect crunch, and yet another is searching for the most “carroty” flavored carrot!
We weren’t able to taste test carrots at different stages of storage, and we’d really like to do that in coming seasons. Bolero is also recommended for long storage, but HMOS has a tempting new variety called Dolciva, that outperformed Bolero for taste in their trials. We will be growing that one, to see how it does in our fields this year! Since about three quarters of the food we eat at Sterling is consumed outside of the main growing season, storage quality is really important, and one of the areas of food provision we are trying to expand.
We don’t use a lot of specialty carrots, but variation and novelty are fun for students, and for some of the special events that happen around campus from time to time. Our purple carrot trials also gave us a clear winner: Dragon outperformed the other four varieties in yield and fresh eating quality–plus it came a close second to Purple Haze for overall taste ratings once cooked. Incidentally, Dragon was also our second most productive variety overall, right after Bolero, with 300 lbs/row foot.
We don’t have more carrot trials on tap for this year…though I may have to try a few yellow and white varieties, just for fun, and I can’t wait to compare Bolero and Dolciva. This year, we will tackle an ongoing challenge for our brassica production–Club Root. Stay tuned for more about that, soon!