The taste of a freshly pulled organic carrot simply can’t be beaten by anything you get at the shops – even dyed-in-the-wool organic-skeptics admit that they taste better. For a product that’s widely viewed as something of a poster child for everything that’s good about natural produce (who can resist photos of baskets of them, complete with their fan of green foliage?), it’s interesting to note that carrots are quite possibly one of the most tweaked-with vegetables around. Originating in Afghanistan, selective breeding over centuries has improved everything from the appearance to the texture and, indeed, the colour: carrots of yore were naturally purple – the orange was bred into them by, surprise surprise, the Dutch.
Today, carrots come in all shapes, sizes and colours as diverse as purple, white, yellow and red. If you’re thinking of growing your own, maybe opt for the less common varieties – the regular kind are readily available in the shops and cost very little, so you may as well reward yourself with something a little bit different for all your efforts. Here’s how to grow your own carrots. And yes, if you do eat too many of them your skin really will begin to turn orange…
Sow pretty much all year round. The world’s largest carrot was grown in Alaska, so there’s hope for everyone, regardless of the weather.
The most important thing to get right with carrots is your soil. Well-dug, light-textured and not recently manured is ideal; make sure to remove as many stones as you can before forking and raking to a nice tilth. If your soil is heavy, don’t worry about it – there’s a variety of carrot for pretty much every occasion and you can choose one that doesn’t form a deep root/a miniature variety. If you’re growing in containers, this won’t be much of an issue.
Too much manure or compost that’s high in nitrogen and you’ll get hairy, misshapen carrots – good for a laugh, for
sure, but a pain to peel! Carrots don’t take kindly to being transplanted, so sow where you want them to grow. Sowing carrot seed can be a bit of a patience tester, because the seeds are miniscule. Try to sow as thinly as you can, about 1cm deep, in rows about 30cm apart. If you’re having trouble with the seed, try mixing it with some sand, or even a little flour – at least you’ll be able to see what you’re doing.
Cover lightly – the little darlings don’t have a lot of get up and go in the early stages and won’t be able to push through encrusted soil. For the same reason, use a fine rose on your watering can or a spray gun to mist them lightly rather than a full-on watering or you’ll wash the seeds/seedlings away. Avoid the temptation to go for long rows and rather sow blocks at two-to-three-week intervals for a continual supply.
Once the first seedlings are well underway, it’s time to thin them. Don’t see this as a waste – you’ll get a better quality, less misshapen crop if you give your food the room it needs to grow. Once the seedlings are about 5cm tall, thin to around 2.5cms between them; give them a couple of weeks growing before thinning again to 7-10cms apart.
Carrots, like most vegetables, like a consistently moist or damp soil rather than sporadic floodwaters. If you go away for a few days and the soil dries out, play catch-up slowly or your carrots will crack. As your carrots grow, you can avoid the tops going green by gently pushing soil up over the emerging crowns.
Harvesting your carrots:
Depending on your variety (and the information on the back of your seed packet), you should be ready to start pulling your carrots about two or three months later. If you’ve opted for the baby or golf-ball-shaped varieties, they’re unlikely to put up a fight. Longer, bigger specimens will thank you for loosening the soil a few inches away from them with a fork first before pulling them out by hand.
Only pull what you’re going to use at the time – carrots keep freshest in the ground (at least when it’s not rainy). Alan Titchmarsh suggests pulling alternate carrots in a row to leave more room for the ongoing growth of the remaining ones. When it comes to storage, let your crop dry out in the sunshine for an hour or two before brushing off the dirt, cutting off the green tops and storing in a cool dry place. Don’t wash them.
There seems to be a carrot for every gardener. Nantes or Imperator are probably the ones that look most like what most people would call to mind when thinking of carrots. The former are sweet, crisp and ideal for home growing in the soil. The latter are long and pointed, meaning you’d really want ideal soil to avoid heartbreak. Tom Thumb is perfect for container growing – as the name suggests, they’re a miniature variety, as is Little Finger. If you want something exotic looking, try the deep red, almost beetrooty Healthmaster – it’s not just good looking; it contains 30-odd% more beta carotene than other varieties. Thumbelina produces ball-type carrots.
Pests, diseases , solutions:
Your biggest problem is likely to be carrot fly, the larvae of which tunnel into the roots. The best organic solutions to this include covering your crop with a fine mesh fabric to ensure the flies can’t access your crop. If you can’t or don’t want to cover them, try surrounding your crop with a 40cm+ high mesh attached to sticks – the flies can’t generally fly higher than 30cm. Carrot flies are extremely sensitive to the smell of carrots and will be attracted by the aromas released when you thin out – so any extra time you spend sowing at the ideal gap will pay off in reducing the opportunities you have to release the aroma. You can also try companion-planting strong-smelling plants such as marigolds, chives or spring onions near by.
Speaking of companion planting, after your initial sowing, try double-cropping by sowing some radish seeds in between rows – the faster-growing radishes will help break up the soil, will keep weeds down and also give you a nice bonus crop while you’re waiting for your carrots.