Growing Great Carrots is Oh-so easy!
A superb harvest of sweet, succulent carrots requires just a few things. But before we start chatting about growing carrots, let’s take a look at their story. In the 1500s there were all sorts of carrots on the market. Long ones, short ones, round ones, skinny ones and fat ones – just about any shape and size you can think of. Then there were the colours: white, yellow, green, red, blue, purple and black. In fact, just about every colour other than orange. That is, until a Dutch carrot breeder crossed (we presume) a yellow carrot with a red carrot, which resulted in the first orange carrot. Knowing that the Dutch Royal House is called ‘The House of Orange’, he presented his unique orange carrot to the Dutch king, who was so enamoured with it that he decreed that from that day forth he would only eat orange carrots. People being people, everyone wanted to copy the king and started requesting only orange carrots. This caused a boom in the production of orange carrots and a corresponding decline in all of the other colours. It‘s estimated that that single proclamation by the Dutch king caused the loss of over 1700 carrot varieties. Fortunately, heirloom seed companies across the world have saved some of the historical, differently hued carrot varieties, but the majority have been lost to us. So back to you, your garden and growing perfect carrots. Here are a few simple steps: Carrot seed germinates quickly and needs to be planted shallowly, covered by less that 5mm of soil. The difficulty is that this thin layer of soil can dry out very quickly, and the tiny little radicle needs constant moisture – if it dries out it dies. So if you forget to water your precious carrot seed one morning, as happens when life gets in the way, and you have a particularly hot day, your seeds will in all likelihood die. The easiest way around this, and to germinate the highest percentage of seed, is to cover your freshly sown carrot seeds with a thin layer of soil and then hessian, and water directly through that. From the fourth day, start lifting the hessian every morning. As soon as you see the tiny green tips peeking through the soil you can remove the hessian. You’ll still need to water every morning, but the hessian will act as a safety net by trapping the moisture in the top layer of soil and preventing it from drying out. In addition, the hessian will break the force of the water so that the seed isn’t washed away. The most common complaint from home gardeners is that their home-grown carrots look like alien vegetables, with multi-forked or very twisted and gnarled roots. Usually root deformities are casued either by the addition of manure to the soil, which has a tendency to stimulate root growth, or by not thinning out the seedlings after germination. Another frequent complaint is stunning top growth and very miniscule roots. This is typically due to using the incorrect fertiliservor a nitrogen-rich fertiliser. Carrots do enjoy a fertile soil, but it needs to be correctly balanced through the use of the correct fertiliser, like Talborne Organics Vita Grow 2:3:2. Before you start planting, take a look at some of the heirloom varieties that are available from the various heirloom seed companies in South Africa. They can add so much fun to a meal.
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. This is certainly a compelling reason for growing our 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. Admittedly January is a difficult month for sowing most crops but if you take extra care with soil preparation and keep the soil moist during germination then you should have a successful sowing of carrots.
Carrots do best in light, sandy, loam soil. They 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, the ideal is to plant carrots in beds that previously held leafy vegetables, especially cabbages, which received heavy feeding.)
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.
Carrot 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 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 it 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 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 1 cm apart. Continue thinning out on a regular basis until the final plants are 5 cm 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 to 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 great additions 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 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.
Cape Market – cylindrical
Chantenay Karoo – pointed, long
Kuroda – pointed, long
Nantes – cylindrical, long with narrow shoulders, blunt end
Ideal Red – cylindrical, long
Baby carrots – Little Darling, Little Finger, Tom Thumb
- Don’t add manure to the soil before planting carrots.
- Keep the soil moist.
- Thin your carrots at three weeks and at two months.
- Use the tiny thinnings in your salads.
- Feed with a balanced fertiliser like 2:3:2.
- Try new varieties.
Getting your kids to eat carrots
The best way to get children to eat carrots is to make it fun. Even though all carrots taste similar, even the coloured ones, do a blind taste test. Help your child to thinly slice coloured carrots, then blindfold them and get them to guess which colour they are eating. Before they know it, they’ll be eating raw carrots and loving it.