Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Colorful Carrots

When we think of carrots, the color orange most commonly comes to mind. However, in the long history of human - carrot associations, this has not always been the case. Archeologists have found carrot seeds stored in ancient dwellings since Neolithic times. These ancient carrots had little resemblance to the carrots on our dinner plates today. They were very much like those wild white sweet roots that Native children are fond of foraging from fields and meadows. While sweet, these roots are fairly tough and most often completely white. It is assumed that Neolithic people gathered the wild roots for food and that the carrot seeds were also gathered for their medicinal and flavoring possibilities.

More recently but still long ago, in fact as long ago as five thousand years, folks in the Middle East began the first known intentional cultivation of carrots. They selected or developed some larger rooted purple carrots, as well as some bi-colored carrots that somewhat resembled the purple topped turnips that abound in markets and gardens today. These carrots spread through out the Middle East and Europe by as early 1000 AD. At this time carrots were still not the delectable vegetable we know today. While sweet and nutritious when young, they were fairly tough customers, and they had a tendency to grow woody and bitter as they aged.

By the tenth century AD yellow carrots were developed in Turkey, through careful selection. These new yellow carrots reached Holland by the fourteenth century. Within a couple hundred years the Dutch had selected out orange carrots that were well on their way to resembling the carrots that we know and love. (Meanwhile all this time, in South America the Indians had their own carrots – Arracacia, of which I can find very little information. The facts are intriguing, the plants are perennial, are grown much like potatoes, and each plant can produce up to 2 kilos of edible roots per year. Now, that is a bunch of carrots! But since I can’t find a source for seeds or plants, we will have to stick with growing these European carrots, for now.)

Fashions do change, in clothes and carrots. Things once considered old fashioned and out dated return as the new rage. A close look at some of the larger seed catalogs will uncover a glimpse of carrots in many colors. The historical colors of carrots, long out of vogue are back in force. And with them are some colors the ancients may have never imagined. Atomic Red and Purple Haze are some of the newest hot carrot colors. You can even buy Rainbow packets with tender sweet carrots ranging from white, through yellow, to pale shades of the more familiar orange. 

Over wintering colorful carrots from Growing Together Community Gardens, where you will find a little more info.

Carrots make an excellent fall and winter crop here in the Pacific North West.. If you get them started early enough, you can even grow them in areas that get substantial snow. Once the snow starts falling the carrots will stop growing. But they will start again as soon as it thaws out in spring, giving you an extra early crop. The rest of us can start our carrots pretty much any time of year, as long as we can provide them with plenty of water. However, carrots grown through the winter are extra fat, juicy, and sweet.

"After several frosts, plant starches become sugars. Carrots attain the sweet crunch of apples, and kale loses all hint of bitterness."  Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament.
Purple topped carrots can get huge!  Learn more here.

When choosing a spot for your carrots, the very first consideration is gophers. If you have gophers in your yard or garden they are sure to eat your carrots before you do. And as the soil takes a bit of preparation for these deep rooted veggies, that is not my idea of a good deal. Carrots can be grown in containers, and that is especially fun to try if you have young children. An empty coffee or olive oil can - can be pressed into duty. Use a nail and a hammer to punch a few drainage holes in the bottom of your new designer pot. You can fill your pots with potting mix, or make your own. Start with a handful of garden soil, a handful of used coffee grounds if you have them around the house, a handful of sand if you can get it, and mix in a gallon or so of potting soil, screened compost, or leaf mould. It can be as simple as that.

If you want to grow more carrots than can be done in an assortment of containers, and gophers are problem, raised beds underlined with hardware cloth are the answer. Hardware cloth is a metal mesh material available at most hardware and garden supply centers. It is not cheap. It is available in 3’ wide rolls, and generally sells for upwards of $2.00 - $3.00 a foot by length. Make sure the hardware cloth you purchase is galvanized. The good news is that it lasts for many years.

Most raised beds are 3 feet wide by six feet long. When designing the beds make sure that the outside measurement of the frame is 3 feet, so you have plenty of space to securely tack your hardware cloth to the wood, preventing gophers access to the beds. For carrots it is a good idea to have beds at least 12 inches high, higher might be even better. I am happy with my 12” x 1” boards hammered together and screened on the bottom. They are simple, not too expensive, and they look just fine.

For growing carrots in raised beds you may want a planting mix that contains a good amount of sand - if you can get it, lots of organic matter, and a lesser amount of plain old mineral soil. A nice loose mix that will resist compaction is ideal. If you are going to make your own, screened compost or leaf mould makes a good starter, purchased sharp sand is ideal – but river sand will do, and a few shovels full of your own garden dirt makes a good addition. You can also purchase planting mix, if you like. Just ask the nursery what they would recommend.

Fill your beds loosely, water well to settle the soil, top off the beds and repeat and level as needed. You want your soil to settle to within 2 inches of the top of your raised beds. Beds or containers filled too high will loose soil to rain and watering, but those without enough soil will cramp the root development of your yummy and nutritious carrots. (If they weren’t so dang good, and good for you too, they really wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Nothing much taste sweeter than a fresh pulled carrot.)

Now you are ready for seeds. I would bet that almost all nurseries and garden sections of hardware stores stock at least a few varieties of carrot seed. You might even be able to find them at your favorite grocery store. But if you want to amaze friends and family with fat ones, skinny ones, long ones, and short ones, as well as red, white, and purple ones, you will probably have to hit the seed catalogs.

The two best catalogs I’ve found, as far as carrot selections go, are Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Thompson and Morgan. You can request a free catalog from both these companies. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is enough to make any gourmet gardener drool. They carry 17 different varieties of carrots, including all the fancy colors and shapes listed above. You can request a catalog by phone, 877-564-6697, or on the Internet: http://www.Johnnyseeds.com Thompson and Morgan offers a whopping 19 different varieties of carrots, and while some of them over lap with Johnny’s offerings, they both have some unique selections. You can contact Thompson and Morgan by phone, 800-274-7333, or on the Internet: http://www.Thompson-Morgan.com

When ordering or purchasing your seed, consider getting some scallions, shallots, or bunching onions too. Carrots inter-grown with any of these alliums are much less susceptible to carrot maggots, who can eat tunnels through these tasty roots. I have not had any problems with carrot maggots here in Hoopa, but I was occasionally bothered by them when I gardened down in the Sacramento area. Rotating your carrot plantings each year and soil solarization can help if carrot maggots get to be a problem.

If you still want to know more about carrots, check out the carrot museum: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/ They have information on everything from carrot antifreeze to carrot quotes, great classroom and rainy day activities, and much, much more. 

Articles On Other Fall and Winter Veggies:
BroccoliFennelGiant Red Japanese Mustard, Kale, KohlrabiParsnips.  

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, Sept. 12, 2006. Posted here with permission.

Updated with a quote, photos, and minor editing on 11.16.16.  Text and photos, copyright Harvest McCampbell.  Please feel free to share via the buttons below.  All other rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the plug - John from the Carrot Museum.

Hope someone tries Mr Carrot Head too!

Eat carrots and live long.

Harvest said...

Thanks for stopping by! You got a great site, I hope everyone checks it out .. .

A World in a PAN said...

Your blog is very helpful! THis morning I bought four different types of carrots in my local market in Paris (you may want to see the pictures at http://aworldinapan.blogspot.com) and I was browsing the web looking for more information about carrots.
Thank you, Laura