Carrots: Selecting Varieties, Growing, Harvesting

Carrots grow year-round in my kitchen garden.  Perhaps that’s why I don’t look forward to them with the quite same anticipation I have for, say, asparagus or peas in the spring or the first frosted kale in late fall. Still, what other vegetable has the complex sweetness of a carrot? And carrots have preparations that distinguish them throughout the seasons. In spring and summer, they show up as salads, raw or marinated. In fall and winter, softly caramelized carrots are part of a roasted vegetable platter or slowly braised with meat they are part of a stew.

Carrots in Scapece

Carrots and B sprouts roastedBut carrots haven’t always been such an easy presence in my kitchen garden. My first attempts to grow them when I moved to the northwest over thirty years ago were disappointing both in germination rate and in flavor and it took me a while to sort out what wasn’t working.

For germination, I finally succeeded by using the suggestion in Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades to mix carrot seeds into fine compost and distribute this mixture along the row. For a five-foot long row in my garden, I thoroughly mix a generous eighth of a teaspoon of carrot seeds into a half-gallon container of compost and spread the resulting mixture in a shallow, three-inch wide depression patting it down with a little more compost.  With regular watering and a covering of Reemay, the seeds germinate in a week or two in their soft compost bed and the seedlings are usually spaced far enough apart to minimize the need for thinning.

Carrots growing 1

For flavor, I eventually figured out why my carrots sometimes tasted bitter and even soapy.  It’s the terpenoids!  In a 1993 article in National Gardening Magazine, Shepherd Ogden explained that sugars and a class of compounds called terpenoids determine flavor in carrots.  As carrots grow, terpenoids develop first and create a resinous flavor in carrots.  Sugars develop later and balance out the terpenoids to create the unique carroty flavor. But if carrots are pulled before sugars develop, the terpenoids dominate resulting in those bitter, soapy flavors I’d tasted in some of my carrots. Carrots can look ready, full and orange, but Ogden writes: “It is only when the sugars have built up that we get the full flavor of a first-class carrot, which can take an additional week or two depending on soil moisture and the weather.”

Once I figured out how to plant them and when to harvest them, the next project was to find carrot varieties that tasted really good.  The Nantes varieties are especially sweet and I tried lots of them: Scarlet Nantes, Bolero, Merida, Nelson, Yaya and the eventual winner Mokum described in the Territorial Seed catalog as “still the finest fresh-eating carrot we know.” It’s the only carrot I grow now, even for over-wintering.  I probably should branch out and try some others but for now, Mokum is the one.

Carrots in mulch

Carrots basket close-upMokum is an orange carrot but carrots do come in other colors.  John Navazio, a Senior Scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance and a Plant Breeding and Seed Specialist for Washington State University Extension wrote an inspiring article  for the National Gardening Association describing the best of the non-orange carrots and their health benefits. And in her wonderful new book, Vegetable Literacy (2013) Deborah Madison suggests more varieties of non-orange carrots. Yellowstone and Amarillo are two yellows; Dragon, Atomic Red and Cosmic Purple are purple with orange flesh; White Satin, Lunar White and White Belgian are white-fleshed carrots.  Even more tempting, her recipes for “Ivory Carrot Soup with a fine dice of Orange Carrots” and “Carrot Almond Cake” made with yellow carrots  may be what it takes get me to add carrots of another color to my favorite Mokum.

Carrot colors PFMaine

Happy Summer!

Basket of veg 6:21Here’s what I harvested from the kitchen garden on the first day of summer: Snow Crown cauliflower, Purplette onions, Kestrel and Touchstone Beets and Oasis turnips.  The rounded cauliflower surrounded by the red, yellow, white and purple globes looked like a vegetable solar system.  I couldn’t resist asking for a photo before cooking them all.  Then we celebrated the Solstice with a feast of roasted vegetables.  Happy summer!

Platter of veg 6:21

And for anyone curious about when I planted each of these vegetables: I started the cauliflower indoors February 20th and set it out March 25th; onions indoors March 1st and set out April 18th; beets directed seeded April 22nd and turnips direct seeded May 22nd.

Lettuce Seed Mixes

Lettuce mix close-up 2I really like lettuce seed mixes, those packets that contain seeds of lots of different colors and shapes of lettuce.  I’ve been planting them each spring for the past five or six years and I’m hooked.  I’m not sure what took me so long.  I used to pour over the lettuce section of seed catalogs, reading descriptions of each variety, admiring the pictures, trying to select a green and a red, a ruffled and a smooth, loose leaves and crunchy heads and all the best flavors.  That’s a lot of seed packets and they translated into lots of lettuce, more than I really needed.

I’d gotten free gift packets of lettuce mixes over the years, most often with my Territorial Seeds order, but I’d never planted them, unreasonably biased toward my selections.  Then in an open-minded moment I planted a row.  The seeds were a range of whites and browns and the leaves that came up were a lovely array of dark and light greens and reds.  As they grew, each leaf revealed its own distinct shape.  Each time I checked the row there was another surprise.

Lettuce mix small row

As the leaves got big enough to add to a salad, I started thinning the row, gently pulling a selection of colors and textures and leaving the rest.  They grew bigger, I did more thinning, made salads of bigger leaves, and the thinning/growing sequence continued until the last leaves standing had formed full heads, each one almost a salad by itself.  The whole process was so much fun.  And there was none of the waste that sometimes happened when I planted all the varieties I used to order.

Lettuce mix big row

Another part of the fun was figuring out just what varieties I was harvesting. Territorial Seeds has several lettuce mixes including London Springs, the mix that started me on this path.  It includes Red Sails, Flashy Trout’s Back, Outredgeous, Hyper Red Rumple, and Bullet. I identified the named varieties from the catalog pictures and guessed about others.  The description of another of Territorial’s mixes, Garden Heirloom Blend, contains names as well as details: “Redder Ruffled Oaks, a loose-leaf with red on green oak-shaped leaves; Devils Tongue, a romaine with green leaves overlaid in deep red; and Speckles, a tight bibb-like butterhead with lime green leaves splashed with bright red and brown.”  Yet another of Territorial’s mixes, Wild Garden Lettuce, sounds very fun though identifying each variety would be a challenge.  “This mix is a vast assortment of literally dozens of varieties, including selections of lettuce that remain unnamed and not available anywhere else other than in this unique mix. If you discover a certain selection that you are especially fond of, let a few plants go to seed, and save your own. Bred by Frank Morton, Gathering Together Farm.” I want to try it.

Lettuce mix in salad bowl

Lettuce grown from these mixes makes beautiful and delicious spring salads, combinations of colors and textures and subtly different flavors.  Maybe I’ll find one variety in these mixes that I just have to have more of and will buy a single pack of that seed, but for now lettuce mixes work for me.