One of the facts about carrots is that the wild ancestors of the modern carrot (Daucus carota sativus) probably first appeared in the regions of modern Iran and Afghanistan. The plants were cultivated primarily for their aromatic leaves and seeds, as the roots were woody, bitter, and white. Centuries of selective breeding resulted in softening the roots and increasing the sugar content, but it wasn’t until the 17th century when Dutch growers produced the familiar orange carrot we know and grow today.
The culinary versatility of carrots, combined with their ample nutrients, ease of growth, and centuries of cultivation, has resulted in a spectrum of shapes, sizes, and colours. Discovering a favourite variety requires some experimentation, but each has its own distinctive qualities. Among the vegetables we consider modern Western carrots, there are four primary groups: Imperator, Chantenay, Danvers, and Nantes.
Imperator types are the commonest ones you might see in a supermarket. They are long and taper to a pointed tip. One of the reasons they are so reliable for the mass market is that they can be machine-harvested.
Chantenay carrots are far stouter. They are short, and often quite wide having broad shoulders tapering to a blunt tip. These carrots are ideal for processing and juicing. The little bits of diced carrots you might find in processed foods are likely from Chantenay stock.
Danvers types are known for being conical in shape, with obvious, round shoulders and tapering to a point. These are usually shorter than Imperator types, and work much better in heavy soils. They arose in Danvers, Massachusetts in 1871.
Finally, Nantes (pronounced "nonce") carrots are nearly cylindrical, with a rounded point. Nantes are bred for sweetness, and are particularly nice for the home garden.
Whatever the type, there are some common characteristics. Carrots are biennials, so they use their leaves in the first year to gather energy from the sun to build a big, starchy root. This is where they store their energy over the winter. The following spring they use that stored energy to send up a tall umbel of white flowers, looking strikingly similar to Queen Anne’s Lace to which they are closely related. When the weather gets cold in the first year of growth, carrots convert a lot of their starches to sugars, so the roots become sweeter in winter.
All carrots can be harvested immature as baby roots, which tend to be crunchy but tender, and quite sweet. They can also be left to reach their full size, shape, and colour, of course. All carrots are high in beta-carotene, a pigment that we metabolize as vitamin A when we eat it. A lack of vitamin A can result in poor vision, hence the notion that carrots are good for your eyesight. Carrots are also rich in Vitamins C, B6, and Niacin.
Because of the relatively vertical nature of the plant’s form, carrots can be grown fairly densely, and are therefore useful within the economy of space in a smaller growing area. That is, even a little garden can produce a lot more in carrots than by, say, lettuce or cucumbers. The seeds can be sown from early spring right through late August for a harvest that will last nearly year round, so they form an essential part of nearly every vegetable garden.
The trick with carrot seeds is to sow them shallowly and then maintain moisture in that top layer of soil until they germinate. Because they may take as long as three weeks to germinate, this can be challenging, especially in hot weather when the surface of the soil is nearly always dry. The way to achieve this is to water very deeply prior to planting, and then either water very regularly or employ some other means to reduce evaporation. Some growers like to use lightweight row cover, which helps to maintain moisture and has the added benefit of keeping away the dreaded carrot rust fly. But we’ve also seen some growers simply lay a 2×4 beam, or even plywood, over the damp seedbed. This is lifted every few days to check on progress, and then removed at germination.
If you have the luxury of growing carrots without the presence of carrot rust flies, you may still be concerned with soil dwelling insects such as wireworms, which seem to be true lovers of carrots. They are so attracted to carrots, in fact, that a full-grown carrot makes a very good lure for wireworms. Just bury carrots or pieces thereof in several areas around the intended seedbed, and mark where you bury them. If wireworms are present, you can then dig up the carrot pieces and easily remove the wireworms from the bed, or at least go a long way to reducing their population.
Take extra care with your carrot bed to insure that the soil is loose and completely free of stones or other debris. Truly beautiful carrots are easy to grow if you take the extra time to produce a good home for them. Avoid nitrogen-heavy fertilizers and manure that has not been composted for more than a year, as you may end up with big, bushy tops on pitiful, spindly roots.