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Plant a Kaleidoscope of Carrots
by Brandee Gruener


 

For years, the carrots our family ate came solely from the market shelf. The bright orange, perfectly formed vegetables lining the produce section didn’t inspire much creativity in the kitchen. Little did I know what a kaleidoscope of carrots we could grow in the garden. Orange and yellow, purple and white, long and short, twiggy and squat – carrots come in a medley of shapes, colors and sizes.


Children love to harvest carrots and find out what surprise lies beneath the soil.

Carrots also have a magical quality, especially to young children; pull on a tuft of lacy greens and the unexpected emerges. Children will clamor to help with the harvest. Carrots (Daucus carota) are packed with beta-carotene, and crafty parents and grandparents can steam or grate carrots into mashed potatoes or baked goods.

An added bonus – carrots can be planted as both a spring and fall crop. With extra mulching, the roots can be harvested well into winter. During a mild winter, the biennial vegetable may even make it into the spring.

Carrots are not difficult to grow, but a little soil preparation goes a long way toward producing tender, sweet, straight carrots. Long, slender varieties prefer to make their way through finely textured soil. Heavy clay and rocks can stop the roots’ growth in their tracks, or result in freakishly shaped vegetables.

I grow root vegetables in an 18-inch-deep raised bed to make soil preparation easier. The soil should be amended liberally with sand and organic material. Carrots don’t benefit from nitrogen fertilizers, but a dusting of bonemeal and potassium will help develop strong, tasty taproots. If tilling the soil deeper than a few inches seems too much trouble, try growing miniature varieties: ‘Little Finger’, ‘Tonda Di Parigi’ and ‘Thumbelina’ are a few to choose from.


The ‘Cosmic Purple’ and ‘Little Finger’ carrots in this photo, along with green and purple cabbage, would make a colorful coleslaw.

‘Oxheart’ carrots have a short, squat shape and require extra room to grow. ‘Little Finger’ can be harvested at 4 inches or allowed to grow as long as 8 inches.

Rocks or hard clay cause carrot roots to fork into freakish-looking vegetables. Remove any rocks and amend your soil with sand and organic material to avoid this problem.

If growing something unusual excites you, ‘Cosmic Purple’ sports purple skin and yellow orange flesh, while ‘Oxheart’ can weigh as much as a pound and is shaped more like a turnip than a carrot. If you want to grow every color in the carrot rainbow, The Cooks Garden even sells a Kaleidoscope Mix with red, purple, yellow and white varieties. If you’d rather grow a carrot that Bugs Bunny would recognize, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange lists ‘Chantenay Red Core’, ‘Danvers 126’ and ‘Scarlet Nantes’ as particularly suited to the South.

The tiny seeds barely need sowing. Seed packets recommend planting at a depth of ¼ inch, but I typically scatter the seeds on the surface and cover with a thin layer of soil. You can draw a shallow line with a stick if you like your rows nice and neat, or simply tidy the bed when it’s time to thin the seedlings. Some of the more common cultivars are sold with seeds affixed to a tape for easy planting and precise rows. Because the seeds are so light, set your hose to a gentle mist at first to keep them from washing away. Even and consistent moisture is important for germination and will produce the best carrots in the long run.

My local Extension office recommends thinning carrots to 3 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart, while providing extra space for ‘Oxheart’. After the leaves reach several inches tall, apply mulch to preserve moisture and prevent cracking. Keep the bed well weeded to avoid competition over root space.

Carrots can be malformed by root-knot nematodes, attacked by carrot flies or damaged by rot, but I’ve never experienced these problems. My greatest weakness is leaving them in the ground too long. Hot days and an overdeveloped root can lead to a woody, inedible core. If a heat wave is on its way, it’s best to harvest a lovely batch of gourmet baby carrots.

Carry them straight to the kitchen, rinse them and cut off the greens to keep your carrots crisp. An interesting assortment of carrots really shines when roasted in the oven with a little butter, oil, salt and fresh thyme or mint from the garden. You can throw in turnips, potatoes and onions as well. (Don’t be disappointed: Remember that purple carrots will turn orange when cooked. You can preserve their color by using them raw in salads.) Or, glaze the carrots in a skillet with the same ingredients plus a tablespoon or two of brown sugar. Make sure you pull them off the stove before the colors begin to meld. Your dinner guests will truly admire the kaleidoscope from your garden.

 

From Carolina Gardener Volume XXVI Issue III.
Title photo by Agricultural Research Service (USDA). All other photos courtesy of Brandee Gruener.

Posted April 2014

 


Freelance writer Brandee Gruener likes to mix it up with edibles and ornamentals in her garden.

 

       

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