Ask A Master Gardener – Carrots: A Step Above the Ordinary

Carrots are no longer the ordinary orange, Bugs-Bunny-favorite vegetable of yesteryear. They have caught the fancy of chefs, gardeners, and specialty restaurants alike. They come in orange, yellow, purple, white, and yellow.  They are also long and slender; short and stubby; or anywhere in between.

For such a simple vegetable, carrots (daucus carota) have a fascinating history.  The word carrot comes from the Greek “karoton” meaning horn and referring to the shape of the root.  Native to the area around Iran and Afghanistan, carrots were commonly black, red, and purple, but not orange.  From that beginning in the 10th century, they spread across Europe and Asia.  By the 1600s, colonist in the New World were cultivating carrots. Wild carrots existed even earlier, but were tough, pale and bitter compared to the sweet, juicy cultivated carrot.

It took considerable breeding and selection to develop the common orange carrot of today along with a bit of political mythology. The modern orange carrot was, in fact, developed by Dutch growers in the 16th century.  At the same time, William of Orange was the leader of a revolt against the Spanish Habsburg monarchy that ruled over a section of northwestern Europe.  The political twist, with no evidence to support it, is that the orange carrot was developed to give thanks to the conqueror. Because the purple carrots of the day stained the cookware and were not as tasty, the orange carrot came to dominate the market.

Carrots are classified by the shape and length of the root. Chantenay are cone shaped with broad shoulders and rounded tips, and are sweet and good for fresh eating.  Danvers are thick and cylindrical, and have a higher water and lower sugar content, so make good juice. Nantes are more cylindrical or cigar shaped, and are sweet and crispy.  Imperator are long and tapered with small shoulders, typical of those found in the grocery store.  Miniature or baby carrots are exactly what the name implies.  They are not just long carrots that have been culled or cut smaller as some believe.

Within each classification are many different colored varieties, including purple, yellow, red, and white. Each color provides a particular nutritional benefit.  Orange is high in alpha and beta carotene; purple has some very potent antioxidants called anthocyanins; yellow contains a different antioxidant (lutein); red has beta carotene and lycopene; white are a good source of fiber.  Not widely available in grocery stores, the best way to try the different colors and varieties is to grow them yourself.

Carrots grow best on loose, well drained soil that is high in organic matter. Many people like to sow carrots as an early crop, but they do not germinate well unless the soil temperature is at least 70°.  Plant them about the same time you are planting green beans or transplanting tomatoes.  The seeds will germinate in about a week if you waited for the soil to warm, three weeks if you were impatient and planted too early.

Sow seeds in rows 5–7 inches apart and with 2 inches between each plant. Thin as necessary to give the root room to grow.  Carrots like to have the tops warm and roots cool.  That will happen as they grow.  Until then, mulch will help the situation as well as keep the weeds down.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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