Carrots

Short version:

Not that much tastier than shop bought, doesn’t save you much money and carrots are easily available in the shops, but carrots are good fun for kids. They can be very easy as they can be sown thinly where they are to grow, but soil must be stone and weed free and not high in nitrogen. They are a great one for deep containers plonked on a sunny balcony or rooftop.

This is an odd one for me as I typically prefer to grow plants that are expensive or difficult to buy in the shops, or that taste much better when home grown. Carrots don’t really fall into any of these camps, in our experience they only taste a little bit better than shop bought. However, we do grow them because little one absolutely adores picking, washing, peeling and eating her own carrots. The draw for kids to carrots is so strong that the carrot and beetroot bed in the edible school garden that I maintain is the only vegetable bed that has been ransacked by the kids. I didn’t mind too much as I heard that they were taken home and forced upon parents to prepare.

The Daucus carota subsp. Sativus is from the Apiaceae or Umbellifera family. The umbellifers are characterised by the flowers growing in a head of small clusters of tiny flowers. You may have seen this type of flower formation in cow parsley, dill or coriander, which are in this family. This family tend to be rather aromatic and have tap roots. Be wary though as there are a few dangers lurking in this family like the deadly hemlock (highly toxic) or giant hogweed (contains phototoxins). The sap of hogweed can cause blisters if it gets on the skin and is then exposed to the sun (that’s where the photo bit comes from). In fact, this is why I have never been tempted to grow parsnips (also of this family) with the little one around, as the sap of parsnips also contains phototoxins. You don’t tend to see the flowers of the carrot as they should be harvested way before they get that far.

How to grow

They like stone free, sandy, loamy soil in sunny spots. Carrots are rather picky. The heavy clay in our garden would give short roots. Any obstacles (like stones or even the roots of other carrots or weeds) will lead to forks and twisty roots. Too much nitrogen can also cause carrots to fork. Nitrogen will give lots of great foliage, but that isn’t a good indication of what is going on down below.

They don’t like being transplanted and if the foliage is crushed during transplanting (or even during thinning) then they can attract carrot root fly, whose larvae burrow into and eat the roots. This means that sowing directly into the soil THINLY is the way to go. This does make for an easy crop to grow, as long as you provide the right growing medium.

For all the above reasons I prefer to grow them in repurposed containers, like polystyrene boxes or old water tanks. The containers should be about 7cm deeper than the variety of carrot you intend to grow in it. Because they are low growing, they are also a suitable one for deep containers shoved on a roof or balcony. I’m afraid the urge to grow edibles in any available container on every conceivable surface was inevitable in our house when lockdown happened. They also do well in raised beds full of compost. The nutrients already available in good compost means that fertilising isn’t necessary, so I don’t need to go find a fertiliser that is low in nitrogen but higher in potassium and phosphate.

They can be sown as early as February if they are protected from any frosts, but for an easy life we sow between April and July.

Sow 1cm deep in rows about 5 cm apart. It’s best to sow each row thinly. If necessary, thin the seedlings when about 10cm tall so that seedlings are about 4cm away from each other. They don’t like competition so should be weeded. When thinning or weeding be careful not to crush the leaves, to avoid attracting carrot fly. There are fly resistant varieties on the market though if this is a worry. I have read that planting strong smelling plants like onions, garlic or chives nearby can mask the smell. Do not plant near other umbellifers as these can also attract the carrot fly. 

Grow shorter carrots if you’re worried about your container depth. You could even grow spherical Parisienne carrots. You can grow interesting coloured ones instead as they are not easy to get in shops.

How to harvest

Carrots take 2-3 months but if thinning is required the thinnings can be eaten. You can tell if the carrot is ready to harvest by pulling the soil around the base away. You’ll be able to see how big the carrot is underneath. You can pick the carrots as you need them, taking the largest ones first to give the others time to grow. However, be gentle with the plants and take the carrots away straight after harvest as you don’t want to attract the carrot fly.

How to eat

Er… raw or cooked. It’s up to you. The forked ones may look a bit weird and are hard to clean or peel, but generally they taste the same. The carrot tops are edible, and taste much like parsley but we haven’t found a use for them yet as they’re a bit too tough for us. I’ve read that they make a good pesto ingredient though.

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