The National Garden Bureau has proclaimed 2016 the Year of the Carrot. It is the carrot’s year to tout its health benefits and crunchy, sweet deliciousness.
The first carrot came from Afghanistan in the 10th century. It wasn’t the conical cutie we harvest today, but most likely thin-rooted, forked, and either purple or white. Later, a mutation produced yellow carrots. Orange carrots were developed from these in the late 16th or early 17th century by the Dutch in Europe.
Modern hybridizers have continued to cultivate the carrot, enhancing sweetness, texture and color. In 1986, Mike Yurosek, a carrot farmer in California, revolutionized the carrot industry when he carved misshapen carrots normally tossed out into 2 inch pieces.
Baby carrots were born. Americans embraced their convenience and increased their consumption of carrots from 6½ to more than 14 pounds per year.
Carrots are an outstanding source of beta-carotene, vitamins A, B6 and K, biotin, and potassium. Health benefits of carrots include lower cholesterol, reduced risk of cancer and heart disease, and improved eye health.
Carrots are a favorite to grow at home. Like many garden performers, they make a few demands of their gardeners – properly prepared soil, correct spacing and appropriate watering.
Grow them in loose soil enriched with lots of organic matter so it retains moisture but water moves freely through it. The soil should be worked deeply and free of rocks. To form correctly, carrots need to be able to push through the soil without resistance as they grow.
Carrot seeds are very small and can be difficult to manipulate. Pelleted seeds are easier to handle and seed tapes make planting a breeze.
Begin planting seeds two to three weeks before the last frost date. Successive plantings three weeks apart will result in a continuous supply. The last planting should be done a couple months before the first projected frost date in fall so carrots have time to mature.
Press seeds on moist soil to ensure good seed to soil contact and then cover with ¼ to ½” of vermiculite or potting soil. Seeds take anywhere from one to two weeks to sprout. It will take longer in earlier sowings due to cool soil.
While seeds are germinating, water them lightly and often enough to keep the soil slightly moist. Once carrots begin to grow, deep watering is necessary to promote the best root development.
Thin carrot plants as they grow – an inch apart when tops are just a couple inches tall. A couple weeks later, thin again so remaining plants are a few inches apart. Crowded conditions grow crooked carrots.
As carrots grow, cover their crowns with soil to retain bright color all the way to the top of roots and to prevent exposure to the sun, causing carrots to taste bitter.
Harvest carrots from 50 to 80 days after sowing, depending on variety, when they are brightly colored. To ensure roots are as tender as possible, water well before picking. Harvest quickly in the summer. Don’t be as hasty as the soil cools in fall. The taste of carrots improves as they mature in cool soil. Cut the tops off as soon as they are harvested to halt growth.
Carrots can be steamed, boiled, baked, canned, pickled, dried or frozen. Fresh from the garden is the only way for me. Or in honor of National Carrot Cake Day, let’s all bake a carrot cake. Come garden with me!