There’s nothing extraordinary about carrots. Humble they may be, but they’re also the most versatile vegetable you can grow—an indispensable ingredient in soups of all kinds, in salads alone or mixed and on trays of raw veggies. Chunks of carrots belong in stews, thinly sliced carrots flavour stir-fries and shredded carrots sweeten cake. You can juice them, steam them or purée them. A friend recalls mashed carrots on her grandmother’s Thanksgiving table, and says they’re the only vegetable she likes every way from raw to overcooked.
But why grow the ubiquitous orange roots when they’re so abundant and inexpensive year-round? It’s a question answered the first time you taste the aromatic sweetness and Popsicle-crisp texture of carrots fresh from the garden. You might be hard pressed to tell a store-bought zucchini or turnip from homegrown, but you’ll notice the difference in a garden carrot at first bite. And for the space they occupy, especially when grown in an intensive raised bed, carrots return a generous crop of healthy food from July through November and possibly beyond.
Once past their early stage, carrots practically grow themselves; initially, though, certain problems can arise. Carrot seeds are tiny, fiddly to sow at a reasonable spacing. Most gardeners end up randomly hand-sprinkling or dumping far too many seeds straight from the packet. When seedlings emerge “thick as hair on a dog’s back” (as my neighbour says), the painstaking job of thinning begins. Left unthinned, carrots will be skinny and badly formed.
After using the old “sow thick, thin quick” method for a mere 25 years, we finally found a better way—in two words: pelleted seeds. Each carrot seed is encased in a ball of fine, white clay, enlarging it to the size of a radish seed. It’s no chore at all to drop pelleted seeds about one centimetre apart in a row. The clay coating dissolves on contact with damp earth so presents no impediment to germination. Seedlings come up evenly spaced, ready for a first thinning—and eating—at baby-finger size. Only a few carrot cultivars are available as pellets, however.
For the past few years, ‘Bolero’ (75 days to harvest) has been our mainstay; a Nantes type (blunt, rather than tapered, roots), it grows to 15 centimetres long. In deep, light soil ‘Healthmaster’ (110 days) is a big, bulky root that stretches to 25 centimetres; excellent raw, cooked or juiced, it has 30 per cent more beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant, than other varieties. For summer carrots from a May seeding, ‘Nelson’ is ready in less than 60 days. For fresh carrots well into the fall, sow a second round of seeds sometime during the first two weeks of June. Early-summer warmth and moisture should get seeds up and growing quickly, but if rain isn’t enough, water the rows every other day until signs of life show through. After that, watering and thinning may be all that’s needed to bring carrots along to sweet September readiness.