If you pull up a Queen Anne’s lace plant growing along the side of the road, you’ll find that its root is a little white carrot. This wild carrot is the species from which our modern hybrid carrots were developed. Indians ate the wild ones, and so can you. But for most gardeners and cooks carrots have come a long way.
The main goal in breeding has been to develop better flavor and sweetness by reducing the size of the pale core in the middle, where less sugar and vitamins are found. As a result, the best ones are a good rich orange-red, crunchy and sweet.
Carrots have now come in all shapes and sizes; the traditional long, tapered ones; short stubby ones; tiny fingerlike ones; even little round ones. Such variety does more than just make life interesting. Carrots of different lengths are suited to different soils and different lengths of seasons.
Carrots do not grow well in very hot weather. Coolness keeps them from turning woody and seems to bring out their color and flavor, too. So in warm areas, you must grow them during fall, winter, and spring. In the north, you can plant them in early spring, then start more every few weeks until August 1 or so, so that they’re carrots in the ground even in early winter.
They’re one of the few vegetables that you can actually leave growing straight through the hard freezes of winter, to pick them in early spring. To a northern gardener in mud season, these seem like a real prize.
Select a Site
The best site would be sunny and well-drained. But carrots will grow in partial shade. I have grown carrots in raised beds with great success it is the best way to maintain the fluffy soil they like. But I find that I have to be extremely vigilant with my hose, since carrots need consistent moisture, and these beds dry out quickly.
Carrots like a deep loose sandy loam the classic beautiful soil. But there’s some latitude here. If your soil is a little heavy, even after adding organic matter, you can still grow the shorter carrots usually an early crop. If your good topsoil is shallow these shorter ones are also the right choice.
For late-season crops, you can get by with poorer soil, and a little less moisture and coolness, by growing the longer carrots that root well below the hot, dry soil surface. But for the carrots to get down that far with any kind of grace, the soil has to be light and airy to the full depth of the carrot root.
If the soil is not free of obstacles stones, roots, clay lumps, old horseshoes, etc., the carrot will bend, fork, twist or even stop cold. The closer to the surface, the more the soil should be pulverized, even sifted.
The second most important soil factor is moisture. Digging in organic matter such as compost or manure will help the soil to stay moist. Well-rotted manure will improve the texture and will add nutrients too, but if you use manure, dig it in at least six months before you plant the seeds.
(Fresh manure, or even rotted manure if recently applied, can cause carrots to fork and send out little side roots). Mulching will also help to keep the water content steady. Since carrots are a root crop, the soil should be relatively low in nitrogen, higher in phosphorus and potassium.
Potassium is especially important to carrot health, and adding wood ashes is a good way to provide it (but screen out chunky cinders that might impede root growth. The ideal pH is around 6.5
Carrot seeds are sown directly into the garden. The first ones can go in about three or four weeks before the last expected frost. I prefer single rows because they’re much easier to mulch, for maintaining the moist soil surface carrots need. I wet the seedbed or furrow very thoroughly before I plant, to speed up germination.
I try to space the seeds about an inch apart, although this is virtually impossible to do because they are so tiny. Some people say that mixing them with sand or coffee grounds makes distributing them evenly easier. You can also buy pelleted seeds of some varieties; these are easier to plant.
I cover the seeds with a half-inch of loose, pulverized soil made airy with organic matter a whole inch for summer plantings; the seedlings won’t come up through a hard crust. You can cover them with sifted compost, a nonsoil medium such as vermiculite, or whatever mixture suits you, as long as it is very light.
When the seeds are in, I water the bed with a fine spray and lay a layer of salt hay over it to shade it and keep it moist. Some gardeners even lay wet burlap over the seeds, especially if they plan to be away for a few days and won’t be able to water. The burlap must be removed as soon as the seeds have germinated. Others sprout the seeds between wet paper towels in the refrigerator.
Another trick is to sew them together with a fast-growing radish variety. The radish seedlings will emerge first and shade the slow, spindly carrot seedlings. They’ll also mark the rows and help break the soil crust if any.
The radishes will be harvested long before the carrots produce their major root growth. But like it or not, carrot seeds just take a long time to germinate, and the best thing to do is keep them moist without washing them away and be patient.
It is best to thin carrots several times, first when they are one to two inches high then later on whenever they are starting to look crowded. In the first thinning eliminate any seedlings that are closer than half an inch to another seedling. Snipping them off with scissors is one way to do it without damaging the seedlings still growing.
The second thinning is more fun because you are pulling up tiny carrots to toss in salads. When you are finished thinning each plant should have a space to grow in that is at least the size of a mature carrot, plus a bit more.
So far I have probably made carrot culture sound like pretty picky work. It is at first but once the carrots are off to a start they take care of themselves quite well. The only supervision they might need is soaking in dry weather loose mulch around the plants, and perhaps a liquid fertilizer that they are about six inches tall.
The last succession crop really repays you for your trouble. Mulch it heavily and leave it in the ground for a spring harvest. If you see flowers resembling Queen Anne’s lace in your carrot patch, it means that the carrots have bolted (produced flowers in order to make seeds). This has never happened to me, but if it happens to you plant bolt-resistant varieties and stick to cool weather plantings. Further, there are numerous health benefits of carrot juice.
Pests and Diseases
Carrot problems are usually minimal. Carrot diseases are not common, but most, including “carrot yellows” can be avoided by crop rotation. Rotating the crop will also deter the one serious pest, the carrot rust fly. And they will not bother you’re late plantings. Flea beetles may bother your late ones, but not the early ones.
Give carrots a good twist when you pull them up so that the leaves do not break off in your hand, but once they are up, cut off the leaves right away. Carrot tops may look pretty on carrots, but they keep growing and draw moisture and nourishment out of the roots, leaving them limp, wrinkled, and tasteless.
Varieties of Carrots
Stored in boxes in mulched pits or trenches outdoors, in moist sand in garbage cans in the cellar, or just in the refrigerator, carrots keep a long time. Freeze the small, tenderest ones, but use the heavy-duty “keepers” in soups and stews or simmered in butter and a little brown sugar until all the cooking liquid has evaporated.
Good short, early varieties are “Danvers half-long” the Chantenay varieties such as “Red Cored Chantenay” and the sweet Nantes types such as “Scarlet Nantes”. Good long carrots are “imperator” a great keeper “Gold Pak” “Orlando Gold” which resists bolting and cracking and A Plus, which is especially nutritious. Ball-shaped carrots include “Kundulus” and the old-fashioned “Oxheart”. Good midgets are the three-inch “Little Finger” lady Finger and short in Sweet.