Carrot-burlap method gets a twist

Landscaping fabric over carrots

Here’s one of the more extreme displays of crazily labor-intensive tiny farming technique. Andie surveys our work, the result of deciding to try landscape fabric in place of burlap to help carrot seed germination. It’s actually a double experiment, because one of the beds is green onions.

The burlap method has been the way to start carrots around here for the last two seasons: tried and true. The main purpose is to preserve moisture in the seed drills, and the increase in heat helps as well.

After a good run, the first round of burlap expired, and I couldn’t find rolls of it in time for this season (I know it’s out there, somewhere). But, I spotted this gear, landscape fabric, a porous plastic mulch used to permanently suppress weeds in…landscaping. It’s light, and just wide enough (3’/30 cm) to cover 4 rows of carrots (that’s a little closer than usual for the bunching onions). I tried it on two beds earlier in the season, and it works fine!

One little problem: it tears easily, so how to hold it down? With the burlap, we made wire staples out of heavy gauge wire. Here, we placed a LOT of heavy rocks, close enough together that there’s no room for the wind to get under and start really pulling. This does the trick for now, but overall, it’s a little TOO intense. The hunt for burlap: still on!

20 thoughts on “Carrot-burlap method gets a twist”

  1. Hi Mike
    over here in the UK bricklayers use berlap to cover new laid bricks in cold frosty weather. And I have seen it on rolls about 3 foot wide. I think the building suppliers might sell it. don’t know if it is the same in Canada.

  2. If your landscape fabric tears, easily, it is low quality; good stuff is as hard to tear as a thin cotton shirt.

    Aluminum electric fence wire is a good material to staple this stuff down.

    I use this with woodchip mulch in my vegetable gardens. It controls weeds well enough that I really don’t have to do any weeding or tilling. This makes it possible to have a much bigger home garden than I otherwise would.

    I have soaker hoses under the fabric, it retains moisture very well. Earthwoms seem quite happy under it.

    I have a 1,000 square foot vegetable garden and I haven’t weeded it once this year- I am a great advocate of landscape fabric.

  3. nika: Well, that was Jul 10, and the carrots popped up a week or so later, so they should be good around the end of Sep if we thin them (and they get some sun in Aug!). They’re Nelson, 55 day.
    jim: That’s a good lead, I’ll check it out, thanks! Here, the rolls of burlap used to be used to wrap tree roots, so you’d find it at garden centers, but apparently landscapers moved to some sort of plastic or fiberglass, so I’m only finding short rolls for home use. I need at least 50′ in one piece…
    Matt: I’ll ask around to see if there are heavier grades here. That would actually work well. I’m into plastics if they can be used just about forever, like plastic buckets. Burlap could maybe be used 6-8 times if really carefully cared for (dried out right after use), but a heavier landscape fabric should last for years. I don’t think wire staples would work out for repeated use, but heavier fabric would mean lots less rocks!

  4. I would suggest using a lattice board or even a 1×2 along the sides and staple over the wood into the ground.  I think over time, the wind will cause tears close to the rocks, where the wood would prevent the movement that would lead to tearing.

  5. Rather than rocks or staples, you might try just hoeing a little dirt over the edges. It really doesn’t take much dirt to keep the wind from getting underneath. I did that this year with a very thin red plastic mulch under my tomatoes and it worked great.

  6. Sorry, I’m new to all of this.   When do you take off the landscaper’s fabric or burlap?  The day seedlings start to emerge?  Approximately how many days does it take for them to emerge?  Thanks in advance from a newbie…

  7. shag: The 1×2 idea sounds promising. I’ve been sort of think about something like that. It’s finding a heavy enough material, like if landscape fabric comes heavier than what I’ve got as Matt suggested above. Then it could be sandwiched in 1x2x8’s lengthwise, and the whole thing folded up into an 8′ stack. A bit expensive, but it would pay for itself in labor saved over a season or two.

    Kathleen: Dirt works great, we do that with row cover when it’s used as insect protection. We actually don’t cover the whole length (takes too long with sometimes hundreds of feet to do), but scoop out soil, push the cover in, and fill back in, every 3-4′ depending on how held down we want the edges. In this case, the fabric is too narrow for hoeing dirt over, there’s only maybe 3″ on each side, so you have to place each rock carefully (may not look like it in the pic, but every rock is only contacting a small area of fabric).

    Troy: I found a burlap company like that in Canada a couple years ago, but they’d only sell by the pallet. Forget how much burlap that worked out to, but it was a lot. Probably end up doing some group buying, there are more small farms around now that may be interested.

    Carrie: I check around 6-7 days. If you check different sources, you’ll find carrot germination is usually listed in the 7-21 day range, with warnings about soil that’s either too cool or too hot. Under any sort of mulch EXCEPT plastic mulch, the temp should be OK, and if you started well watered in, carrot seed in good condition should start in 6-7. You can leave it for a day or two more to get good even emergence, the first ones up likely won’t be bothered by being in the dark (or semi-dark with burlap). And then, presto, off it comes and instant rows of carrot seedlings, with little or no weeds in between! I’ve tried using plastic mulch, and that works really fast 6-7 days with tons coming up, but it can get too hot, and if you leave it even a half-day too long, seedlings start getting toasted. But anything but plastic a day or two is probably not critical. Search here for “burlap carrot” if you want to read more posts about this (I’ve gone into some detail in a few! :). Hope that helps.

  8. One more method to add to the mix:

    Last year I was too cheap to buy burlap (which is probably the easier method) but I had a lot of 1X2 strips of wood (about 3-4ft long each).  I just put the strips right on top of the row after I’ve seeded it.  The wood has the same effect as the burlap.  Actually,  it needs nothing to hold it down, so in that respect it’s easier.  I’ve seen it done with 2X4’s too, but they are more unweildy to work with and anything longer than 3-4 ft doesn’t hug the contours of the ground well enough.

    I’ve planted carrots Aug 1st in my area (Ottawa) and still had reasonable sized carrots by the end of October.  For full-size carrots, mid July is probably the last time for us.  Of course it depends on how much late summer / early fall warmth you get.  The frost doesn’t bother them at all in October, but cool days cause them to just sit there and not grow.   A week or two of sunny weather in October can keep them growing a surprising amount.  I think it’s because they soil is much warmer but carrots grow better in October than they do in May.


  9. The best moisture screen I have used for hand-drilled carrot plantings was dried grass clippings from my own lawn, broadcast in a thin layer, almost see-through. The beds were 4.5′ x 30.’ The effectiveness for conserving surface moisture was surprising. The only way I can imagine doing this on a small farm would be to use a good grinder and produce a similarly textured product from free old straw or dried weeds.

  10. Chris: I’ve considered planks, but for 3-4 x 4-row 50′ beds at a time, it added up to a lot of wood!

    Kim: It did work out!

    Edie: That sounds like it could be a perfect solution. We did a fair bit of grass mulching last couple of years, from clippings on the perimeter of the garden, and that worked great. You can get by with quite a thin layer. I tried germinating carrots with straw mulch, but that didn’t go well, need too thick a layer to contain moisture, and then, it’s too much for the carrot seedlings to grow through, so had to remove it. But the straw wasn’t chopped up very fine. Will try next year!

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  12. Mike, have your certifier raised any stink about using landscape fabric in the field?  I do not think they’re would be any problem, but you never know.
    I do not think it is that crazily labor-intensive.  Not any worse than putting down row cover, I would guess!  :)

    • EtienneG: Although I didn’t specifically check, I don’t think there’s any problem with landscaping fabric, since plastic mulch is fine. There is a problem with things that stay in the field, for example, biodegradable mulch is not allowed under certification (and I haven’t seen certified organic biodegradable…). I did check on paper towels, when used damp to roll up seeds in for germination, and there is no restriction on them, which I found kinda interesting, seed being so intimately in contact with the paper…

  13. If it is an experiment shouldn’t you be testing it next to a control group?  I mean, if this method is successful and you can actually compare the costs and results over time you may have come up with a seriously good alternative.  I realize that every dollar you save in production is a dollar in your pocket (or not out of your pocket as is the case with most small farms.) 

    I also wondered, since you’re a CSA, do you have interns?  Friends of mine at Morning Owl Farms in Boise, Idaho do that and I know that it helps a ton.

    • In this particular experiment, I think the only useful comparison is between different types of cover, as good germination with the beds uncovered absolutely can’t be relied on, the beds will dry out.

      The alternative to cover, which I’ve also tried, is watering daily. I’ve done this by hand and with sprinklers – in this tiny set-up, both of those approaches are way more labor intensive. On hot and windy days, you may have to water twice a day. The results are pretty good, and if you had permanent sprinklers that you could just turn on and off, that would be exellent.

      As for cover, in the end, it seemed a toss-up between burlap and landscaping fabric.

      Burlap is easy to lay down and secure with staples bent out of wire. But, if it is wet at the end (rain), it needs to be dried out afterwards or it will rot, and that can be a pain. For cost, the best I could find was about $30 a 50′ bed (double layer of burlap) and that lasted for about six uses with reasonable care (the burlap starts to disintegrate) – I couldn’t find small enough quantities at decent volume pricing.

      With landscape fabric, I found a heavier grade, so tears weren’t too bad, but it does tend to catch the wind and can tear. Also, laying it out took more work, harder if windy, takes more time to weight down the edges, and the wind still gets it sometimes (I can’t remember that happening with burlap). Cost per use compared to $5 for burlap was a couple bucks less, so not a huge difference at this scale, and a little more work.

      Later on, from a tip here in comments, I found the much better solution: floating row cover. Now we use old, torn row cover that’s beyond any other use, folded over into two or three layers. It’s super easy to handle, does the job, and is practically free since the row cover has already been put to good use, and can still be re-used for this for quite a while.

      Of course, there are many ways to achieve the same end. This is just the story of what happened here! :)


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