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To us, carrots are primarily for eating raw, in which manner they are delightful; not, perhaps, superb, but good and a quite pleasant eating experience. They are a most excellent addition to almost any salad, and a surprisingly useful garnish, visually, texturally, and taste-wise, on many cooked dishes (a sprinkled handful of gratings works wonders on things you might not have thought of using carrots in). They are secondarily a vegetable to be cooked, not so much as a distinct side dish as in stews and such other dishes as call for them (but again: you'd be surprised at how many dishes you never thought of for which including some carrot will work wonders).
Carrots come in two broad categories based on their growing time: fall/winter carrots (longer time) and summer types (fast growers). The clear consensus is that Nantes types are the best for flavor, but that still admits of a host of sub-varieties. Nantes requires loose, somewhat sandy soil for success, which is why there are so many other types available, types with less flavor but that can grow in heavy, clay soils; since there are many fine root vegetables--carrots, beets, parsnips, scorzonera, and so on--that thrive in the same conditions, it's worth (if you're not blessed with appropriate soil, and few out here are) making at least one bed for root crops that is loose and sandy--yes, you really can just work some sand well into clay to make it more loamy--and you don't need a great deal of space to grow those crops.
If there is a simple way to choose from among the many open-pollinated Nantes sub-varieties available (assuming there's much of a difference to begin with, which may not be so), we don't know it. Good old Scarlet Nantes is probably as good as any; another, which we think might be the best bet, is the heirloom Nantes-type Touchon.
The Nantes carrots we grow outdoors are mostly for freezing for later use in cooking (which is why growth period is not important to us). For fresh carrots--mainly for salads--we want to grow a continuous supply indoors, summer and winter, in our "tank room" quasi-greenhouse (described elsewhere on this site). For that sort of growing, one needs a small, space-efficient variety, and the golf-ball-sized "Paris round" (or "planet") types fit the bill perfectly: they are indeed round, and are typically harvested at a maximum of an inch or so in diameter, though--left to grow--they can get to 1½ to 2 inches in diameter. We've tried regular carrots indoors and those just didn't work, so now we'll begin again. Possibly the best of this type is the Parabel (aka Parabell), but though common in the U.K. it seems unknown in North America. An alternative that is probably very close is the heirloom Tonda di Parigi type, a long-established type said to be especially well-suited to container growing but with good flavor. (That's it at the left.)
Carrots are normally planted out direct. They are commonly thought of as cool-weather crops, but the soil temperature for optimum germination is about 85° F., though they are almost as viable down to 50° or even 40°.
Carrot growth varies somewhat with cultivar, but is much faster than that of most other root crops, generally in the range of ten to eleven weeks (though little Tonda di Parigi--for our indoor growing--is more like eight weeks). One New England seedsman reports of Touchon "we dug the last of our July sown crop out from under mulch in early April this year!" Simple rule: if the soil is chilly to touch, do not plant yet. Probably the easiest thing to do is to seed them at the same time as beets, which hereabouts means mid-April.
Carrots need good sun exposure. They can tolerate any sort of soil, but they--and all "roots"--do vastly better on soil that is very loose and friable, else they get stunted, show forked roots, and generally sit in their corners sucking lemons and sulking. For best results, dig your bed so as to loosen the soil as deeply as you can possibly manage, and remove all rocks and as many pebbles as possible, working in organic matter or even straight sand to make it good and loose. They like the more or less standard garden-soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8.
It is also wise to not use much manure in roots beds--and absolutely never any that is not thoroughly composted--or you'll have forked roots galore.
(It is wise to prepare one whole bed that way, for all your root crops--carrots, scorzonera, root parsley, and the like; in fact, you can do two beds that way, and alternate your root crops with anything else-- for us, bush beans--that ought not to go in the same ground two years running.)
You can seed carrots pretty close together: in deep or raised beds, Jeavons recommends 3 inches' separation, but even 2" will probably work. By the way, carrot seeds are almost like dust, and are accordingly a pain in the, ah, elbow to plant out; just be careful and patient, and if you spill a little--or a lot--extra, what's to worry? Or you can just sprinkle them from your fingers, held close to the soil. Either way, just thin as they emerge. (Or you can buy "taped" seed--paper rolls with the seeds attached at the appropriate distance--if you can find tapes of a cultivar you want, but that seems like overkill.)
(Some gardeners like to mix in a radish seed or two at every sowing spot, so the earlier, more aggressive radish seedling can break the surface for the carrot seedling, then pull the radish stem when the later root-crop seedling emerges; we much dislike putting radishes, or any crucifer, in any place that is not a part of that season's crucifer beds in a rotation scheme.)
Just keep them decently watered, and harvest them timely. As you near the time that you think they'll be ready, start pulling an odd one now and again (they'll be perfectly edible, sort of "baby carrots"); when they look good and orange and of about the expected size, pull them. There is a window of perhaps three weeks' time during which they are at peak flavor; after that, they remain edible for literally months--they can be left in mulched ground right through the winter--but are no longer at their peak quality.
Although we do not, in general, discuss diseases or pests in these pages, one needs to know that carrots are highly vulnerable to the dreaded carrot fly. Suitable companionate planting is said to very much help repel the fly, but the evidence is anecdotal; rosemary and sage are often mentioned, and onions and leeks too (the theory, in this case, is that the strong smell from the herb or allium keeps the carrot fly from sensing the carrots). More germane, scorzonera, a natural garden neighbor, is also said to repel the fly.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:
The wild carrot is Daucus carota, the modern refined variety Daucus carota sativum; carrots belong to the Umbelliferae family, a most useful vegetable group that includes parsley (including rooted parsley), celery, parsnip, fennel, dill, coriander, and some other less-common herbs. Umbellifrae are easily recognized by their characteristic lacy top growth.
Never re-invent the wheel. There is an excellent history of the carrot on line already (at the above-linked Carrot Museum site).
Many people use the above-ground carrot greens as flavoring: a little (they are fairly strong in flavor) as a salad garnish, or more as an addition to soups and the like.
If you find this site interesting or useful, please link to it on your site by cutting and pasting this HTML:
The <a href="http://growingtaste.com/"><b>Growing Taste</b></a> Vegetable-Gardening Site
In association with The Book Depository, we offer a library of books on vegetables, including books on growing, specialty cookbooks, plus a few related odds-and-ends books on the topic of vegetables, available for purchase from The Book Depository (never any shipping charges added).
Since you're growing your own vegetables and fruits, shouldn't you be cooking them in the best way possible?
Visit The Induction Site to find out what that best way is!
If you like good-tasing food, perhaps you are interested in good-tasting wines as well?
Visit That Useful Wine Site for advice and recommendations for both novices and experts.
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