by Henry Homeyer
Carrots really are rather splendid. Raw, steamed, or made into a soup, they are almost universally pleasing. I have never encountered a child who would not eat a carrot, particularly if it is raw and slightly gritty, straight from the soil (though there must be some, I'm sure).
Carrots aren't just orange!
Carrots come in a variety of colors: standard (Don't-Run-Me-Over) orange, sunflower yellow, plum purple, radish red and ghostly white. Some get huge, others remain small and some are even round. They come from a family of nice plants: dill, Queen Anne's lace, cilantro, caraway, chervil, anise, parsley and fennel. Those plants are in the Umbelliferae family, and if you squint you can see the word "umbrella" in the name, which is due to the shape of their blossoms - a broad canopy of tiny blossoms. The botanical name for that flower style is "umbel".
I called Shep Ogden, one of the founders of Cook's Garden Seeds (www.CooksGarden.com), to talk about carrots. I remembered that he had gone to India many years ago to look for specialty carrots. He told me that, yes, he had found purple carrots there and came back with a pound of seeds. Unfortunately, the carrots bolted (flowered and produced seed) almost right away - and a bolted carrot is not edible. He postulated that the carrots are day-length sensitive, and he had gotten his seeds from a zone where the days are all 12 hours long. Carrots are biennials, and should only bloom in their second year.
Since Shep's early efforts with purple carrots, others have done breeding programs to develop good purple carrots suitable for North America. I've grown Purple Dragon and Purple Haze. My 7-year old grandson, George, grows purple carrots, and loves them for both their color and their flavor.
The Fedco catalog (www.fedcoseeds.com) lists a true red carrot that I will try this year, Atomic Red. For sheer size, a yellow carrot called Yellowstone is the most impressive: I have gotten single carrots weighing a pound or more and over a foot long. But even at that size they are not woody or bitter. I got my seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com) where they are part of a mixed-color packet called "Sunshine and Orange".
Tricks to Growing Big Carrots:
There are tricks to growing big carrots, but anyone can do it. First, buy a variety advertised as growing to be long - 8 inches at least. Prepare your soil so that it is fluffy and deep, with lots of organic matter. Raised beds are excellent for carrots. Thin your carrots early and often. That's very important. By the 4th of July, carrots should be spaced an inch apart. Keep thinning and eating your carrots, and by mid-summer the carrots should be a couple of inches apart. Keep well watered, and top-dress with a little organic fertilizer around the 4th of July.
If you have heavy soil and can't seem to get it fluffy, order short carrots. Renee's Garden Seeds sells one called Round Romeo that should do well for you. Shin Kuroda is a short (5") Japanese carrot that is sold by Fedco that should do well in heavier soils, too.
Good for your eyesight... it's true!
Carrots, promoted by Bugs Bunny as the way to have good eyesight, are indeed important for your eyes. A lack of Vitamin A can lead to poor eyesight and even blindness. The beta carotene in colored carrots is converted into Vitamin A in humans. According to a Department of Agriculture web site, 2 plots of carrots each a meter (yard) square, will produce enough carotene to provide an adult with all the vitamin A needed in a year.
Let's make some soup:
I made a nice carrot soup recently, but didn't measure all the ingredients so if you want to try this, you'll have to improvise a bit.
- Cut up a leek (or onion) and a couple of cloves of garlic and sauté them briefly in olive oil in a heavy soup pot.
- Boil briefly a pound of carrots cut into chunks - until they soften up a bit.
- Put carrots in a food processor and blend them into a puree, adding about a cup and a half of orange juice.
- Add the carrots to the pot with the leeks and garlic.
- Add about 4 cups of water (or stock, if you prefer).
- Other flavorings? I peeled a piece of fresh ginger about half the size of my thumb, grated it, and added to the soup. I added some hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper.
I had some Thai tamarind paste, and added a couple of ounces of that - but if it's not on your shelf, don't worry. Same for a spice I got in Amsterdam a few years ago: Koek en Speculaas. It's mostly used for baking and has a nice nutmeg-like scent. I can't help but fiddle with soups, trying to find my own version of standards. You can play with your favorite spices, too. Fennel is good in carrot soups, and parsley.
So plan on planting carrots. They're good tasting, relatively easy to grow, and good for you. Order some seeds today.
Henry Homeyer, "The Gardening Guy", is a freelance writer, garden designer, and consultant. He lives in Cornish Flat, NH and writes a weekly gardening column for the Valley News and other newspapers in Vermont, Maine,New Hampshire and Rhode Island.