Monday, May 28, 2012

Growing Carrots

Daucus carota, Bugs Bunny’s favorite food, is a garden staple and not very difficult to grow if you understand and accommodate its needs. 

Carrot plants aren’t actually all that fussy, but to develop the long straight roots we want, do require some specific conditions. 

Because the root is what we’re after, it’s always best to sow your carrots directly into the soil they’ll mature in.  It’s very difficult to transplant seedlings without some minor damage to the tap root and that shows up as deformed roots later on. 

These carrots need to be thinned!
Carrot seeds are tiny and the seedlings are very fragile, so it’s essential that the soil remain very soft, open and consistently moist while they germinate.  Carrot seeds germinate best between 45F and 85F.  In the PNW, that means we usually do our first sowing in April, when the soil starts warming a bit.  They’re irregular in their germination—some pop up in a few days, others seeds sit and wait for a couple of weeks before breaking the surface of the soil.  Because of this irregularity and because it’s really hard to drop just one of those tiny seeds at a time, most folks sow relatively thickly and then thin the plants to about 1-1/2” apart.  Growing carrots too closely together causes the roots to become misshapen and sometimes entwined with one another.  Unless you’re planning to post pictures of your bizarre carrots on Facebook, you should give them a little room to breathe…

Once they’re up and growing, carrots don’t need much.  They’re rather light feeders and prefer a light, lean soil over a richer, heavier mix.  Too much fertilizer can cause the roots to get “hairy”, with many little feeder roots extending from the main tap root.  Unattractive, but not harmful.  Give them consistent moisture and if the crowns (the top of the root where the leaves begin) start to show above ground and turn green, cover them with a bit of soil or mulch.  Pull them when they color up and get to the size you want. 

A June/July planted crop of carrots in very well draining soil can stay in the garden over the winter if mulched with straw or shredded leaves.  Like most plants, they get a bit sweeter with the cold.  Carbohydrates converted to simple sugars as a response to lower temperatures act as a natural anti-freeze within the plant’s tissues. 

The main pest of carrots in our area is the carrot rust fly.  The females lay their eggs in the soil around carrot family plants and when the larvae hatch, they wiggle over to the roots and burrow in.  The lovely little white maggots chew around in the root, leaving rusty brown trails.  The carrot is still edible after you cut out the bad spots, but will not keep as long in storage.  The best way to foil these pests is to grow carrots under floating row cover, either laid directly over the plants, or over low hoops.  Whichever way you do it, be sure to completely enclose the plants—the flies are small, attracted by the scent of the plants and really motivated!  Keep the plants covered all season as there are several generations of the flies born each summer. WSU's Hortsense website has some good info about these annoying little guys.

Carrot Rust Fly damage.
Photo by Eric Sideman, MOFGA
If you think carrots only come in bright orange, you’re in for a treat.  Orange, yellow, gold, white, red and purple are all available.  And since each color is formed by a different combination of phytonutrients, a variety of carrots in your garden means more nutrition on your plate!  Here are a few varieties that I’ve grown and liked.  My family tends to like very sweet carrots eaten fresh or steamed.  We don’t juice them, so I don’t know how well they’d do for that.

A mix of colors from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds
Scarlet Nantes
Nantes generally refers to a group of carrots that are very crisp and sweet, about 6” to 7” long and more cylindrical than tapered.  Just about every seed company sells some strain.  My main crop is always Scarlet Nantes.
Nelson and Yaya
Hybrid varieties of Nantes, these are both quite reliable and yummy.

Yellow Solaris  
Light yellow, with a very sweet flavor.  They can get quite big when overwintered, but they seem to form cores and start to bolt earlier than others, too.
 More golden than Yellow Solaris, with a deeper flavor. 

Dragon, from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds

I haven’t had tremendous luck with these—the slugs got almost all the seedlings as they came up last year.  But, they sound great and I’m determined!  If you’ve grown them, let me know what you thought.

These are smaller and not as crisp as some, but have a really nice spicy taste.  And they’re gorgeous—purple on the outside, with little flecks of orange.  The inside is bright orange or even yellow, so they look really cool when sliced.

Scarlet Nantes, 2006

Have fun and let me know how your carrots turn out this year!

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