Carrots are delicious eaten raw or cooked, and studies suggest that eating one a day might beat taking vitamin supplements.
Many of us grew up being told that carrots would curl your hair and help you see at night – an interesting combination! Don’t disregard that as ‘folklore’ – it’s at least half right, because carrots contain antioxidant compounds that promote good vision, especially night vision, and also help to protect us against cardiovascular disease and cancer
Carrots are said to be one of our best health foods: they are rich in vitamin A and a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, dietary fibre and potassium. Many ‘detox diets’ include a medium-sized glass of pure carrot juice a day, while grated carrot is a good option for one of the portions of vegetables or as a component of one of the fresh salads that we should be eating daily.
Most of the carrots we buy are cultivated using pesticides and other chemicals, which is certainly a compelling reason for growing your own, organically. Although carrots prefer cooler growing conditions, they are one of the few vegetables that can be sown from August to April in most parts of the country.
Carrots do best in light, sandy, loam soil, and heavier soil that tends towards clay is not ideal. Carrots are a root crop so the soil needs to be dug over deeply (more than 30cm in depth). Remove all clods of earth, stones, sticks, weeds and roots so that the soil texture is fine. Some gardeners dig over the bed twice to really aerate it.
Don’t add manure or compost because carrots prefer a nutritionally poor soil. (If you practice crop rotation, plant carrots in beds that previously held leafy vegetables, especially cabbages, which are heavy feeders.)
Carrots in containers
Carrots can be grown in deep containers using regular potting soil. Regular watering is very important, and during germination it is critical because the soil must not dry out. Liquid feeding at half the recommended rate twice a month is essential as nutrients leach out during watering. Remember: this feeding advice does not apply to carrots grown in the garden.
Carrots seed is very fine and is best sown in the rows where it is to grow. Seed is typically sown shallowly, so care must be taken to prevent it from drying out in the hot midday sun. If needs be you can sow it a bit deeper, or shade the bed with shade cloth or a light layer of damp newspaper. The damp newspaper will also act as a snail trap, and by lifting it up in the evening you can pick off the snails. I prefer using shade cloth and raise it about 15cm off the bed, making a supporting framework with sticks. This usually also keeps birds and cats out of the beds.
It is also advisable to sow the seed more thickly than recommended as germination is more erratic when conditions are not ideal. To make it easier to work with, the seed can be mixed with fine sand or mealie meal.
If the soil in your garden tends to be quite heavy or forms a hard crust then cover the seeds with fine compost instead of soil so that they can break through the surface more easily. Compost dries out very quickly so you need to be extra vigilant and water twice a day when it is very hot.
It is essential to thin out the plants to prevent stunted and misshapen carrots. The number of plants you will have to remove depends on the germination rate and the progress of the seedlings. The first thinning out takes place when the first two or three true leaves develop. Remaining seedlings should be 1cm apart. Continue thinning out on a regular basis until the final plants are 5cm apart. Thinned carrots can be chopped up and added to salad.
Weed control (by hand) and watering should be done regularly. Light mulch will retain the moisture in the beds. Some gardeners lightly cover the shoulders of the carrots with soil to prevent greening. Leaf blight can be a problem during wet periods. Fungicide, like Dithane WG or Coppercount, can be used as a preventive measure.
Harvesting and storage
Carrots are ready for harvesting within 10 – 12 weeks. Don’t delay harvesting because the quality of the carrot does not improve the longer it stays in the ground. If the shoulders of the carrot are green they are past their best and will be woody and bitter. Rather pick all the carrots from each sowing at once and freeze, bottle or store them in the refrigerator. Cut off the green leafy tops before storing them because the leaves draw moisture from the roots. They will stay fresh for about two weeks if they are stored in a plastic bag or wrapped in paper towel and kept in the coolest part of the fridge. Store them away from apples, pears, potatoes and other vegetables and fruit that produce ethylene gas, because ethylene makes carrots bitter.
Organically grown carrots can just be scrubbed lightly before eating – peeling is only necessary for commercially grown carrots. Beta-carotene is not destroyed by cooking, and cooking breaks down the fibre, making this nutrient and the carrot sugars more available, so they taste sweeter. But like any other vegetable, overcooking reduces their flavour and nutritional content.
A few quick serving ideas
- As mentioned previously, grated or shredded raw carrots make a great addition to salads.
- Combine shredded carrots, beetroot and apples, dress with a light herb vinaigrette, and eat as a salad. For extra crunch add chopped nuts or a mix of nuts and raisins.
- Chop up young carrots, lightly sauté them in olive oil, add garlic and herbs when the carrots are ready, and serve.
- For quick, nutritious soup that can be served hot or cold, purée boiled carrots and potatoes in a blender or food processor, thin with vegetable or chicken stock, add herbs and spices to taste, and stir in a dollop of cream for a touch of luxury.
- Spiced carrot sticks are a flavourful variation on an old favourite at parties or at the dinner table. Soak carrot sticks in hot water spiced with cayenne, coriander seeds and salt. Allow to cool then drain and serve.
- Blitz finely-grated carrot, apple and parsley in a blender for a healthy breakfast juice that’s also an excellent ‘detoxer’. Instead of grated apple you can use fresh apple juice for a thinner mixture.
- Add carrots to soups, stews and casseroles. They add a depth of flavour to any slow-cooked dish, whether it is chicken, lamb or beef.