How to Grow Carrots

comments (0) March 26th, 2009

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A sweet harvest of full-size carrots is the reward for improving your soil with well-rotted organic matter.
A sweet harvest of full-size carrots is the reward for improving your soil with well-rotted organic matter.Click To Enlarge

A sweet harvest of full-size carrots is the reward for improving your soil with well-rotted organic matter.

Photo: Janet Jemmott

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When was the last time you had a really good carrot? One just pulled from the ground on an early fall morning, while its feathery green top was still wet with the melting frost. A carrot that crunched so loud the noise rattled your bones and woke up the birds; a carrot so sweet that your taste buds exploded with joy. If you have never experienced carrots like this, or doubt that you could grow such carrots, read on. When all is said and done, carrots are surprisingly easy to grow, and they tolerate great differences in growing conditions and technique. Carrots need steady watering—especially early on—and regular weeding, but that’s about as finicky as they get.

Harvesting carrots
  The author uses a garden fork to ease carrots up out of the ground.
 

Daucus carota, the humble carrot, which has become one of our staple vegetables, originally came from Afghanistan. Unlike today’s varieties, which are predominantly orange, that first carrot was probably scrawny, hairy, and maybe even purple. The carrots that appeared around the 12th century in Europe were likely to have been a rainbow of reds, yellows, oranges, and even white.

Carrots are one of the best-known members of the Umbelliferae. Their culinary cousins include parsley, celery, parsnip, fennel, anise, dill, coriander, caraway, and cumin, to name a few.

Those of us old enough to remember know how rare it used to be to encounter dry, flavorless carrots. In today’s world of mass-produced foods that must survive the rigors of heavy chemical support, machine harvesting, handling, and packaging, you are just as likely to be disappointed as bowled over. There is no guarantee that the carrots in the local grocery store will actually delight your taste buds and provide the nutrition you expect and need. One of the best ways to be sure about your carrots is to grow your own.

A bushel of carrot varieties
In the early 1900s, beta-carotene, which is converted in the body to vitamin A, was isolated in carrots and associated with orange and yellow colors in food. Since then, carrot breeders have worked to breed other colors out of carrots. A bright orange carrot such as ‘Artist’, or one with deep purple on the outside and bright orange-yellow on the inside, like ‘Dragon’, is the result of efforts to increase the levels of beta-carotene.

Besides boosting the level of beta-carotene in carrots, breeders have developed scores of cultivars offering a variety of characteristics. There are crosses and hybrids that address a particular market or processor demand, as well as those that may just be a breeder’s dream carrot.

Carrots are grouped into three types: Chantenay (or Kuroda, if it originated in Japan), Nantes, and Imperator. These are further subdivided into groups according to purpose: fresh market, processing, and storage. Two other specialty groups include round and baby carrots. Some of these smaller carrots, such as ‘Thumbelina’ and ‘Minicor’, work exceptionally well in container gardens.

Carrots range in shape and size from golf balls to scimitars. Catalogs describe carrots as coreless, stumpy, tapered, or heavy shouldered. How do you know which one to grow? I try to pick varieties that will grow well in my soil. If your garden has shallow topsoil (6 to 8 inches), look for a stumpy, heavy-shouldered Chan­tenay or Kuroda. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to have loose topsoil that is a foot or more deep, pick an Imperator variety described as coreless, with long slender roots. If you have raised beds or a loamy or sandy soil, a Chan­­tenay or Nantes carrot will be best.

Chantenay carrots are 5 to 6 inches long, produce well in shallow or heavy soils, are multipurpose in the kitchen, and store well. Even under duress, they are likely to produce well. This year in Indiana we were locked in a drought, and except for hand-watering several times a week, my red coreless carrots received no water. Nonetheless, they did very well. I have had good success with ‘Supreme Long Chantenay’ and the Kuroda ‘Kinko’ for early carrots in new fields.

‘Danvers Half-Long’ has been around for as long as I can remember and always seems to do well. ‘Danvers 126’ grows exceptionally well in heavy soils.
Chantenay
Nantes carrots are usually cylindrical and blunt and range in size from 6 to 9 inches. They will grow in shallow, heavy soils. I enjoy many types of carrots, but I am partial to Nantes. Originally from France, Nantes carrots are the crispest, sweetest carrots around. I usually grow several varieties because I can’t decide on just one. I am fond of ‘Nelson’ and ‘Earlibird Nantes’ for early carrots, ‘Scarlet Nantes’ for nostalgic reasons, and, lately, ‘Bolero’ for a storage carrot.
Nantes
Imperator carrots have enviably long, straight roots that taper to a graceful point, and they are not bashful about proclaiming the type and depth of soil they prefer. I have grown true Imperator carrots only once, in a raised bed with loamy soil in northeast Minnesota.

If you want to grow the long slender carrots frequently seen in the grocery store, make sure your soil qualifies. You will need 18 to 24 inches of loose, deep soil that drains well, but is not too sandy.

Imperator


Many Imperator carrots are actually crosses between Nantes and Imperator types; this offers the best of both worlds. Varieties such as ‘A-Plus Hybrid’, ‘Long Tapered’, ‘Gold Pak’, ‘Apache’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Bolero’, and ‘Cheyenne’ have been developed for the California climate, but they have also worked well for me under less favorable conditions.

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