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Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 4.10.08




The Dirt On Carrots

Sweet, crunchy and not always orange

BY RACHEL FOSTER

Eat those carrots! They are very, very good for you, and yes, they do help you see in the dark, thanks to beta carotene. Carrots are loaded with other vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fiber. And they come pretty much ready to eat. All you have to do is scrub them.

Descended from wild carrot (Daucus carota, aka Queen Anne's Lace), the sweet, fat and tender garden carrot we know today appeared in Europe just a few centuries ago. Modern carrots come in a variety of shapes, from long and slim with an extreme taper to practically spherical, like a big radish. Most carrots are the familiar orange, but other colors include cream, scarlet and blackish purple. One old heirloom is named Violet of Syria.

Photo: ROBIN CUSHMAN

"It is easy to grow carrot tops; the edible part is not quite so easy," says Steve Solomon in Gardening When It Counts. Growing straightish carrots that don't crack calls for rapid but steady growth. That requires a dependable, uniform supply of moisture and adequate fertility in the soil. Not too much fertility, though: Excessive nitrogen produces big, leafy tops and meager roots. The first challenge to growing carrots well, however, is thorough soil preparation.

At the Grassroots Garden, Merry Bradley oversees an impressive carrot crop. "We prepare our loose, deep beds by spading as deeply as possible and removing all small stones, debris and sticks, anything that would cause the fragile tap roots to twist or fork. Next we amend with lime, alfalfa meal, rock phosphate and kelp meal which we work into the bed thoroughly and evenly. We never add manure to carrot beds as this would create hairy looking carrots, and who wants hairy carrots?"

If your own soil is not carrot-ready now, work on it through early spring and sow some late carrots. Royal Chantenay or a blunt-tipped Nantes type such as Nelson seem to be best if your soil is less than perfect. Short, radish-shaped carrots are another good choice for heavy or shallow soil, and they do well in container gardens, too. Longer varieties will grow in containers two feet deep, while round varieties can grow in containers one foot deep.

Carrots are usually seeded directly in the garden since they don't transplant well. The seed is tiny, so mixing it with screened compost makes it easier to disperse. Ted Purdy, farmer at the Youth Farm in Springfield, seeds carrots with a seed dropper at two inch intervals or less so he doesn't have to thin the seedlings. He then covers the seed with about a quarter inch of fine compost, screened from discarded, unused potting soil, to prevent the clay-loam soil forming a crust that could interfere with germination. Carrot seed is slow.

Back at Grassroots, Bradley describes what happens next: "After lightly tamping down the soil in the furrows, we cover the whole bed with black woven shade cloth, which we secure with ground staples at the sides of the beds. On top of that we staple overhead soaker hose. We water lightly, daily, until the seeds have germinated and plants are an inch tall. The shade cloth keeps the ground evenly moist and prevent it from crusting and drying out. Once the carrots are about an inch tall we remove the shade cloth."

Purdy seeds carrots under plastic from late February to mid-March and then without protection April through mid-July. He likes Nelson and Mokum best. "Both are munching type carrots but Nelson comes in 10 to 15 days later and is a slightly tougher carrot with good top strength, easy to harvest. Mokum, however, is very sweet," he says. "Munching carrots" are sweet and delicate but lack the fiber needed for storage. Try Chantenay types for carrots that will keep. (In September, Purdy sows Merida, for harvest next May and June.)

If you don't space your seed, you will need to thin the plants for proper spacing. Thin when very young (the first month) to about half inch intervals, then continue as they grow. Carrots should nearly touch at maturity, so their expected size determines spacing. Bradley aims for big carrots and thins to four inches between plants. Needless to say, you can eat the thinnings. Mound soil over the carrots' shoulders as they grow to prevent the tops turning green.

Spring-sown carrots can be pulled through August. Summer carrots mature in fall and can stay in ground. Bradley saves two beds to harvest after they've seen freezing temperatures for a whole week, usually in November or December. They are pulled all at once, on Carrot Harvest Day, a fun family event. Cool temperatures turn the starches in the carrots to sugar, she says, making the carrots very sweet and crunchy.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at rfoster@efn.org