Another great garden choice is carrots. No other vegetable contains as much beta-carotene, from which the body makes vitamin A (a vitamin many birds lack). Carrots are also an excellent source of vitamins B and C, potassium, thiamine, folic acid and magnesium.
A range of varieties are available. Shorter varieties such as Thumbilina, Red-Cored Chantenay and Short and Sweet are better suited for heavy or dense soils. Longer carrot varieties like Pioneer and Spartan Bonus are ideal for sandy or loose soils. "It's really hard to get a nice, long, straight carrot if your soil is really compacted or stony," noted R. Allen Straw, assistant professor in the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Tennessee and an extension specialist in vegetables and small fruits.
Like broccoli and spinach, carrots are also planted early in the spring, however not quite as early in the season. Sow the seeds directly into the soil, two to four weeks before the average frost-free date. For a continuous summer harvest, make successive plantings every two weeks until midsummer. In warmer regions of the country, carrots grow best during the late fall and winter months.
Sprinkle the carrot seeds in rows spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. Sow the seeds one-quarter-inch deep, aiming for one seed every one-half to 1 inch. Carrot seeds are tiny and hard to handle, so to attain a more even distribution, Jauron recommends you put carrot seeds in a folded piece of paper and then tap them out gently with your finger. Not all the seeds will germinate, but most probably will.
Once the seedlings have emerged, thin them to 1 inch apart from each other. When the tops of the carrots become thicker, thin them some more: this time two to three inches apart. "When thinning, pull the carrots out carefully, to avoid disturbing the remaining carrots," Mason said. She suggests using the thinnings as baby carrots.
Around 70 to 100 days after planting, your carrots will be ready to harvest. You'll know they're ready when they develop a bright orange color and the roots are three-quarters of an inch in diameter at the upper end. To harvest them, take hold of the stem at the base and pull gently. Twist or rock the carrot gently to loosen it. If your soil is heavy or compact, you may need to use a spade to help you pull up the carrots.
What are some good ways to serve carrots to your birds? "My parrots prefer raw carrots sliced into little sticks that they hold like hand toys," noted Donna Garrou, an aviculturist and manager of a bird supply store and boarding facility in California. On the other hand, if your bird likes warm, soft foods, she suggests you boil and mash the carrots. You can also lightly steam or microwave your carrots to bring out some of the flavor. Your birds may especially appreciate warm veggies on cool days.
Sweet potatoes are packed with calcium, potassium, beta-carotene, folate, and vitamins A, B, C and E. They are high in carbohydrates, mostly derived from starches and sugars. Still, it can be a much deserved taste-treat for your pet bird.
Two main varieties of sweet potatoes are available to home gardeners: the dark orange with a moist flesh and the pale yellow with a drier, slightly less sweet flesh. Sweet potatoes are a tropical crop, best suited for growing in warm weather. Plant them once the chance of frost is past and the soil has warmed up.
Normally, sweet potatoes are planted as "slips" (rather than seeds), which are small shoots (cuttings) that grow off the roots. Sweet potato slips can be purchased from mail order garden supply catalogs, nurseries and garden centers.
This vegetable grows best in loose, sandy soil that has some clay in it. If your soil is overworked or poor quality, you may want to add some compost or organic fertilizer to your soil before planting.
Because they are a vine, sweet potatoes need more space than most garden vegetables. Mason recommends you plant the slips 12 to 18 inches apart, on rows mounded 10 inches high and 12 inches wide, spaced three to four feet apart. For the first few weeks after planting, water the slips and make sure the soil doesn't dry out.
"Sweet potatoes don't have a lot of natural pests, but occasionally they become infested with the sweet potato weevil, aphids and nematodes," Straw said. If any of these are observed, normally one or two applications of an organic pesticide is enough to get rid of them.
Harvest your sweet potatoes 90 to 110 days after planting, before the first frost. "Dig them up before the temperature gets below 55 degrees. If the soil temperature drops below 55 degrees, the roots won't hold up," Straw said. Carefully dig up the sweet potatoes with a spade or a large fork to minimize bruising. Take them inside for storage right away. If left in the sun for more than 30 minutes they can spoil.
After harvesting, sweet potatoes need to be "cured" for 10 to 14 days in a warm (around 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit), humid place, such as the garage, a greenhouse or patio. This heals over any small wounds in the potatoes from digging them up, and prepares them for winter storage. Once the sweet potatoes are cured, store them in a cool, dry location (between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal).
Most pet birds love chowing down on sweet potatoes. It can be prepared in a number of ways. Soucek puts raw slices of sweet potato on a skewer and gives those to her parrots. Garrou microwaves or boils sweet potatoes to firm or tenderize and then cuts them into small slices to offer her birds.
You can also cook and mash the sweet potatoes. If your bird has a sweet tooth, you might add some raisins and a little cinnamon to the mix. If your bird prefers spicy food, try sprinkling some cumin or cayenne pepper over the mashed sweet potatoes. Be ready for a major clean-up afterward; your bird is sure to do some food flinging while it's zealously eating this food!
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