Used extensively as a flavouring in Europe and west Asia, many North Americans may only recognize the sharp, savoury taste of caraway from the use its seeds in rye bread. Caraway reveals its close family ties to carrot through its carrot-like, feathery foliage, and the long taproot it develops in the first year. Like the carrot (also a biennial), the plant stores energy in this root to send up a tall flower stalk in year two, which is followed by seeds for the next generation. These characteristics are also found in parsley, as well as a handful of annual plants like cilantro, cumin, and dill. All of these plants produce umbelliferous flowers that are highly attractive to beneficial garden insects.
Use the delicate foliage to flavour soups and salads, use the seeds to flavour breads and baked goods, and even use the carrot-like tap root as a regular root vegetable.
Grow caraway for its intensely scented seeds or as a parsnip-like root vegetable. It will manage in partial shade, but grow in full sun if harvesting the seeds is the intent. Caraway will thrive in nearly any reasonable soil, but if grown as a root crop, take some time to cultivate deeply as you would for carrots. Continue reading below for some other details on how to grow caraway from seed.
Season & Zone
Season: Cool season biennial
Exposure: Sun or part-shade
Zone: Hardy to Zone 4
Caraway is best sown directly outdoors in early autumn. For spring sowing, direct in the garden is preferred in order not to damage the taproot. Technically caraway seeds can be started in trays, but transplant them early and carefully, before the root is exposed.
Sow seeds 5mm-1cm (¼-½”) deep. If growing as a root crop, treat the plants like vegetables and space them 20cm (8″) apart. For seed production the plants can be spaced a bit farther apart.
Caraway plants look a bit like carrot plants. In the first year of growth, they reach about 20cm (8″) tall. New spring growth emerges from a parsnip-like taproot in early spring. By early summer, the plant begins to send up its flower stalk to around 60cm (24″) tall.
The edible leaves and flowers can be picked in the summer. In the fall, harvest the seed heads and dig up any second year plants. Sowing more seeds at this time is sensible.
As an umbelifer, caraway acts like a general health tonic for the garden. Once in bloom, the plants will attract many species of predatory insects to control pest species. Plant near any crop that suffers from caterpillars (such as Brassicas) or aphids (such as peas). Just be aware that this amazing property occurs when the plant is in bloom in its second year of growth.
More on Companion Planting.