Bugs Bunny’s favorite vegetable was originally grown because people used the leaves and seeds. The roots were fairly bitter, and an anemic beige nowhere near the dazzling orange you find on your plate today. After several thousand years of tinkering, red, yellow and eventually orange carrots became available for our eating pleasure. They come in a few other colors, too, such as creamy white and purple. The purples, according to Jo Robinson in her book Eating on the Wild Side, are probably the most nutritious of the lot. Carrots are worth growing for their ability to attract beneficial insects and predatory wasps, even if you never chew a root. Just let them flower and the beneficial insects will thank you. The flowers are pretty, too.
Carrots take forever to germinate and the seedlings are nearly invisible until several inches high. Seeds are tiny, so the best way to plant them is to mix with fine sand and broadcast in a wide band. The garden books all tell you to work up your soil so it’s really fine, but if you have good soil and few rocks, I think overworking it can cause problems. You might get a few twisted or forked carrots if your soil isn’t powder-fine, but it’s not a huge issue.
Carrots are very hardy and can be stored in the garden, even under snow. You can also seed them pretty much any time of year – they will just take longer to grow depending on the weather. This makes succession planting a breeze and means you can have carrots of varying maturity all year long. Be warned that they may split if the weather suddenly gets hot when the roots are mostly developed. While you can freeze them, storing in the garden is a heck of a lot easier if you have the space. Just remember they are biennial; carrots planted in late summer will go to seed the next spring. Once they start to flower, the roots become tough and inedible. If you don’t like the licorice taste of cilantro (I don’t) carrot tops make a pretty good substitute. The tops can be used fresh or dried.
- Danvers Half Long – A very successful carrot developed by the market gardeners of Danvers, Massachusetts, and brought to market in 1886. It does well in almost any soil. They store well and have a nice sweet flavor.
- Red Cored Chantenay – a relative youngster, it was introduced in 1929. Good for eating and juicing, but only fair for storage, in my experience.
- Scarlet Nantes – this has really good flavor and not much of a core, which makes it nice for fresh eating. Henry Fields’ catalog had some complimentary things to say about it in 1927.
- St. Valery – a French variety, and as is so often the case with French fruits and vegetables, it has excellent flavor. Vilmorin listed it in 1885, but some sources say it’s been around since the 1600s.
- Longue Rouge Sang – The name means “long blood red” but this is really a relatively short carrot and multi-colored. The shoulders are deep purple, with the color transitioning through red, orange, yellow and beige by the time it reaches the root. It has a good flavor, keeps the colors when cooked and is very firm, so stores well. I can’t find anything on its history save that it is a French heirloom.
- Oxheart – another French variety, developed in the 1870s. This one gets quite large and is a stewing variety. Not all that good for fresh eating. Grows well in heavy soil. If you live where the ground freezes hard, don’t try to overwinter Oxheart; it will split.
- Long Orange – developed in America during the early 19th century, this is a fodder carrot. It’s a narrow long carrot that really needs sandy soil. Farmers fed this carrot to their milk cows as it made for deep yellow butter (which, by the way, was very rich in beta-carotene and vitamin A, as was the milk).
If I could only have one, I would probably go with Danvers Half Long or St. Valery. Since carrots don’t take up a lot of space, you don’t usually have to make a choice.
In addition to the aforementioned vitamin A, carrots are high in fiber and vitamin K. They are also a good source of potassium, biotin (another B vitamin) and vitamin B-6. Yellow and orange carrots provide lutein, an antioxidant that helps prevent macular degeneration, the most common cause of age-related blindness. Other carrot antioxidants: lycopene, polyacetylenes and anthocyanins.