Friday, March 1, 2024

Carrots: a most satisfying cool-weather crop

Carrots are native to Europe and parts of Asia and
Africa, but now have escaped around the world and
those wild carrots are known as Queen Anne's lace.

Carrots (Daucus carota) are in the carrot family Apiaceae. While this plant family includes quite a few well-known and economically important crop plants as anise, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, parsley, and parsnip, there are also a few highly poisonous species, such as poison hemlock, water hemlock, spotted cowbane, and fool's parsley. 

The defining characteristic of this family is the inflorescence, the flowers nearly always aggregated in terminal umbels, that may be simple or more commonly compound. The other name for this family is Umbelliferae. 

Carrots are biennials and develop a taproot to store energy for flowering the second year. When grown as a crop, they are harvested at the end of the first growing season when the tap root is fully developed and has stored enough energy to fuel the blooming in the next year. If allowed to bloom, the taproot will wither away as the energy is used. The tiny flowers are arranged in a flat or slightly rounded head. In the very center of the carrot flower head there is one dark purple flower while the rest of the flowers are an off white. When blooming it's known as Queen Anne’s lace, named for Queen Anne of Great Britain in the early 1700s, who was said to have pricked her finger while tatting lace, which is represented by that single purple flower in the center of the flower head.

A personal aside: I was an older grad student (with two little kids) in the 70s when working to get my advanced degree in botany. I was a teaching assistant (TA) so I would not drain the family finances too much and we were required to sit in on the lectures, so that we could better teach the labs. The professor, who was about the same age as me, was explaining to the 300 botany 101 students about biennials using carrots as an example. He claimed that the students had probably never seen a carrot flower. After the lecture I marched into his office and told him that every student in that class had seen carrot flowers, but that it was known as Queen Anne's lace. He may have earned the PhD, but he was obviously not a gardener, nor had he hiked on trails there in Massachusetts where every field included those escaped wild carrots. I think he was embarrassed, but he did not correct himself in class. The students in my two sections were informed, though.  

This forgotten purple carrot from my garden  a few years ago
probably resembles the original wild carrots. (Notice the dill
flower heads in the background with their complex umbels.)

Carrot history

The carrot has been under cultivation for 5,000 years. The other crops in this family have mainly been cultivated for their leaves, while carrot breeding has centered on its root characteristics. Its ancestor is native to Afghanistan region and probably had a bitter, woody, and purple root.  Through selection for taste and medicinal qualities and with some breeding yielded a white-rooted variant from North Africa. Breeders in the Netherlands eventually adopted our modern sweet orange carrot in the 1700s. It was highly prized during the reign of William of Orange.

The carrot arrived in the New World before the Mayflower and carrot seeds were required as part of the supplies that settlers had to bring with them for better survival. In many parts of the country it is now an invasive weed.

This year's final carrot harvest

This year's final harvest of 'Nantes half' and 'Cosmic purple' carrots.

Carrots have tiny seeds and it's usually best to plant them directly in the soil, which should be cleared of rocks or lumps that would cause the tap roots to bend. They do not transplant well and have a long growing time. They take 90 days or more before any of them will be ready to harvest. Since they grow best in cool weather, here in Florida, we grow them right through the winter. Some years, I start a second batch of carrot seeds after December 1st, but that didn't happen this time. 

I'd planted half a row with 'Nantes half' and the other half with 'Cosmic purple' carrot seeds at the end of September. I'd been harvesting the largest carrots since Christmas, which has probably added up to more than 20 carrots. Now it was time to get this bed ready for some warm weather crops, so I harvested the whole wide row, both large and small. 

Bringing a work table out to the garden makes it easier on my back. Pre-rinsing a carrot harvest with rain barrel water keeps the kitchen sink clean.

To simplify the carrot processing, to keep the kitchen sink clean, and to be kind to my back, I brought a table and a compost bin out to the garden where I had access to the hose from the three-rain barrel system on the other side of the garage. (The hose had been uncoiled from its usual position next to the garage wall for weeding and remulching.)

About five pounds of carrots were in this final harvest. The cosmic purple carrots are orange inside.

After the initial cleaning with the rain barrel water, just a quick rinse with tap water and they were ready for consumption. With fresh carrots, no peeling is needed, just the scrubbing and rinsing. People are surprised that our purple carrots are orange inside. I took the photo of the carrot chips a couple of years ago when I'd prepared them and a pesto dip for a pot luck event.

Cooking to the harvest! 

A lovely and delicious carrot salad. My famous ugly carrot soup was delish!

This year we made good use of our wonderful carrot harvest with a large batch of my ugly carrot soup that provided three dinners. Back in 2013, I included that recipe in "Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida." People liked it so much that one reviewer in an Orlando newspaper got permission to publish as part of the book review. In our second edition, we removed the recipes to make room for more crops and more updated science, but I posted the original recipe in one of my Transplanted Gardener columns. (Here's a link that column: Sweet treat carrots Note: I no longer use chicken stock in my soups and find that pre-frying the onions and herbs in the olive oil provides plenty of flavor.)

A few days after the soup was gone, I made this delicious dinner version of a carrot salad which provided 2 dinners for the two of us.
- a pound of shredded carrots (both orange and purple)
- 1/2 cup chopped flat parsley leaves from the garden
- 1/4 cup chopped meadow garlic from the garden
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1/2 cup roasted sunflower seeds
- 1 cup raisins
- enough mayonnaise to coat everything
- enough oxalis flowers to decorate the top of each salad plate from the unmowed freedom lawn.

So that 5 pounds of carrots were the basis of five dinners for the two of us and the previous harvests were also important in our dinners like our Valentine salad. Growing our own food has saved us more than 15% of our food budget, not only because of the food replacement, but also because the harvests have changed how we and what we eat.  

Our Valentine salad included purple carrots, red lettuce, oxalis flowers, garlic chives, meadow garlic, celery stalks from come-again celery, and parsley from the garden. Plus dried cranberries, walnuts, sunflower seeds, cheddar cheese, olive oil, & balsamic vinegar from the store.

Grow rainbows

Quite a few seed companies now
offer Rainbow carrots.
Carrots are only one of our cool-weather crops that we can grow right through the winter here in Florida.

So I hope that you'll sow an assortment of carrots seeds starting in the fall, so at this time next year, you too will be enjoying wonderful treat of sweet carrots fresh from your garden.

Green Gardening Matters
Ginny Stibolt

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