This humble root vegetable has noble roots and a colourful past, yet it remains the subject of many a dad joke.
Urban legend has it that today's orange carrots were designed exclusively by Dutch breeders, to commemorate their national colour, but evidence exists that orange carrots were simply a mutation of yellow carrots, which were a mutation of yellow-cored purple carrots. The Dutch, no doubt, perfected orange carrots in shape and perfected their brilliance.
Carrots are the babies of my garden. They need daily care and attention, sometimes twice daily, until they can stand on their own two feet. From the moment that seed hits the soil, until it germinates, it needs moisture. Otherwise, game over. This is not a chore for me, rather a joy, and for the 7-21 days my babies take to hatch, I visit and sprinkle, and visit and sprinkle.
Once established, carrots possess the strength and resilience of a toddler learning to walk. They are unstoppable. The Persians were onto something.
Carrots are biennial plants that flower beautifully in year two (if not harvested), so during winter they store their energy underground in their roots — lucky for us. This means of course that if we leave these roots in the ground, protected from extreme cold by thick mulch, we can harvest them during the colds months. Carrots are clever in that they convert stored starch into sugar to keep the water in their cells from freezing. How sweet!
Carrots grow well in beds, pots or planters. Their many shapes and sizes can be tailored to almost any depth of soil, and their ‘instant snackability’ makes them a big hit with children.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, and the cumulative teaching of generations of Saturday morning cartoons, carrots are not considered a superfood.
Carrots do not appear on food marketers’ top ten list of superfoods; foods that by definition are nutrient dense, high in beneficial vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, fibre, and polyphenols and other elements considered beneficial to a person’s health.
Such a load of compost. You can bet that if demand were to exceed supply, or if a conglomerate cornered the market, carrots would become a superfood overnight.
In spite of containing up to 95% water, carrots are highly nutritious, loaded with beta carotene, fibre, vitamin K, and potassium. They are nose-to-tail consumable, both sweet and savoury, highly cellarable, beautiful, relatively easy to grow, and inexpensive. A four course dinner for two can be made from just two bunches of carrots and a few pantry staples. That’s super in my book, spectacular even.
Consumption of carrots has been linked to the lowering of cholesterol and improved also eye health. The cancer-reducing antioxidant betacarotene, gives orange carrots their colour, and is converted by our bodies into vitamin A.
According to the online resource Healthline, 100 grams of carrot (two small) contain:
Protein: 0.9 grams
Carbs: 9.6 grams
Sugar: 4.7 grams
Fiber: 2.8 grams
Fat: 0.2 grams
Contained vitamins and minerals:
Vitamin A: Carrots are rich in beta carotene, which your body converts into vitamin A. This nutrient promotes good vision and is important for growth, development, and immune function.
Biotin: A B vitamin formerly known as vitamin H, biotin plays an important role in fat and protein metabolism.
Vitamin K1: Also known as phylloquinone, vitamin K1 is important for blood coagulation and can promote bone health.
Potassium: An essential mineral, potassium is important for blood pressure control.
Vitamin B6: A group of related vitamins, B6 is involved in the conversion of food into energy.
Carrots often rank low on the glycemic index (GI), which is a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar after a meal. Eating low-glycemic foods is linked to numerous health benefits and is considered particularly beneficial for people with diabetes.
Carrots contain pectin, a soluble form of fibre which can impair the absorption of cholesterol from your digestive tract, lowering blood cholesterol.
Now back to the garden, where growing carrots is easy if one follows a few simple suggestions. This is what works for me.
Plant carrot seeds in their forever home, not in seed trays or in pots. Carrot roots are the vegetables, and unlike beets and turnips that are short and stubby, these long and slender lovelies don’t take kindly to disturbance or transplant. Some people advocate for planting in peat or paper pots that will decompose in the soil, but that can take a lot longer than it takes the carrot root to bump into it and alter course. I wouldn’t try it. Garden beds, raised beds, pots and containers are all good candidates for planting carrots, just make sure that the soil is deep enough to accommodate the anticipated root length, before planting. Carrots and their parsnip cousins can be interplanted and companion planted among other crops, which is a good practice as it encourages succession plantings that mature at different times throughout the garden. They tolerate partial shade and will merely adjust their growth speed to suit their environment. Companion planting suggestions include brassicas, leeks, onions, peas, peppers, beans and radishes.
Plant seeds 1/4” deep in a shallow trough that has been thoroughly and deeply watered (but isn’t sodden) prior to planting.
Carrot seeds are very small, but do your best to space them 1” apart, or use ‘pelleted’ seeds to increase accuracy. Pelleted seeds have been encapsulated in a biodegradable, water-soluble, organic coating that makes them manyfold larger and uniform in size for easy handling at seeding time. Pelleted seeds were developed originally for use by commercial growers, in automatic seeding machines. They are now available in smaller quantities for home gardeners, but at about four times the cost of naked seeds. Seed packets recommend seeding at a rate of four seeds per inch, which I suppose is fine, but you do have to thin them to one plant per two to four inches of soil once they reach a height of one inch, so I don’t see the point of over-seeding and wasting perfectly good seedlings that cannot be transplanted. This works for me, but do what works best for you.
Backfill the trench with soil, tamp it down gently and evenly to secure the wee seeds in their nesting spots, and water thoroughly but very gently so that the seeds don’t wash away (a few will regardless, and they will turn up elsewhere, eventually). Do not let the soil dry out. If the seeds, especially pelleted ones, dry out and remain so for any length of time, they will not germinate.
Keep the soil as warm as possible during the germination period. Simple row cover or black landscape cloth can be laid overtop to help keep the soil warm, and keep it from drying out too quickly. Check often for germination, and remove the cover immediately when it happens.
Water regularly until you and the carrots are ready to harvest, but do not let the soil become sodden or stay wet.
For spring and summer eating, sow carrots just after the last frost date. For fall and winter eating, sow carrots August through September. It is harder to keep seedlings moist during the summer and fall, but the trade-off is that the soil is warmer so seeds germinate quicker.
Carrots grow relatively slowly in my garden, perhaps because I grow them in the partial shade of more voluminous greens like beet tops. Once established, carrots can be harvested at any size — baby, not so tiny, bigger still, and full grown. They are best when they reach the full brightness in colour, of their variety (orange, yellow, white, purple, red). If you have been watching closely, you will know when that is.
Baby carrots are beyond lovely fresh from the garden, washed in a bucket of water warmed by the sun. They are simply charming on a vegetable platter, with an inch or so of bright green stem left intact. Lightly dressed and roasted whole baby or slender carrots (short stems intact), lined up like soldiers on a serving dish, are a thing of beauty that belies their crazy quick and easy preparation.
Sadly, carrots can fall prey to two rather common pests — the dreaded carrot rust fly and wireworms, both of which decimate carrot roots, rendering them inedible. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to prevent and/or mitigate damage. Using row cover to prevent carrot rust flies from laying eggs, and/or use nematodes (small worms) to eat the larvae of carrot flies and wireworms.
Also, ensuring that the soil isn’t sodden will help deter wireworms from moving in at the outset. Rotating crops from one bed to another annually, especially if pests are a problem, will help solve the problem. Fingers crossed, I have not suffered either malady, but I have friends who have, and who haven’t even noticed that anything at all was wrong, that is until they harvested their carrots. How devastating.
I plant enough carrots to allow me to pick one every few days during the spring (carrot pest season), to ensure that all is well. You might consider doing this too, to avoid disappointment later on.
Carrots may develop green shoulders just below the stem, if the vegetable sticks up out of the soil and becomes chlorophyl stained by sun exposure. This green flesh can be unsightly and taste bitter, but it can be prevented by gently mounding a small amount of dirt up over the exposed shoulders.
Rocky soil may create forked, bent, or irregular shaped carrots. If possible, plant carrots in screened soil.
My 2021 pepper menu includes: (D2M = days from seeding to maturity)
Bolero Pelleted - orange, 5-8”. D2M: 75
Chantenay Half Long - orange, 5-6”. D2M: 75
Chantenay Short Stuff - orange, 4”. D2M: 70
Deep Purple - with purple core (not yellow), 7-8”. D2M: 60-75
Little Fingers - orange, 3-4”. D2M: 60
White Satin - ivory, 8”. D2M: 65
Ya Ya - orange, 7”. D2M: 65-70
I have tiny neighbours who love to dig about in my garden, so for them I purchased Little Fingers. They grow quickly and slender and sweet — very snackable.
The Boleros and Ya Yas are workhorse carrots, serving multiple purposes all year long. We will eat them fresh, cook them many ways, pickle and ferment them, dehydrate and freeze, jam and ice cream them too. Indeed, they are a superfood.
The White Satins and Deep Purples are my designer choices for this season, adding colour here and there to salads, sauerkraut, sautés, even juices.
Chantenays are perfect for containers and pots, and they are great juice carrots. They will join other dwarf and compact vegetables planted in a friend’s new container garden.
Two of my very favourite ways to enjoy carrots are in soup, and oven roasted. Gingered carrot soup with pancetta chips is a favourite on our holiday table, and roasted carrots (root veg in general) are a staple in our house, used in everything from sandwiches to ice cream. I like to experiment with different ethnic spice blends when roasting root vegetables, as their flesh absorbs flavours so beautifully.
An everyday soup that requires little preparation is a singed carrot and almond soup with fresh ginger. You can replace the carrots with any combination of root vegetables, so this is a great one for cleaning our the fridge crisper drawer. If you love that ‘nearly burnt’ taste of sautéed onions on the verge of overdone, you will love this recipe. You can also back-it-off and roast the carrots lightly, and sauté the onions only until translucent.
Singed Carrot, Almond and Ginger Soup
1 lb (450 gr) orange carrots of any variety
Unsweetened almond milk in a tetrapack, or homemade
Low sodium vegetable or chicken stock, tetrapack or homemade
One small yellow onion or two large shallots, chopped fine
3-5 cloves of garlic, peeled
Thumb size knob of ginger, grated.
Salt and pepper
Sliced almonds and carrot top greens for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 400F (200C)
Peel and roughly chop carrots into 1” chunks and toss them together with the peeled garlic, in a bowl with enough olive oil to coat well. Salt lightly and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Roast for 20+ minutes, turning every five minutes or so, until the edges start to singe. If this doesn’t happen naturally you can turn on the broiler once the vegetables are soft throughout, and watch carefully to prevent them from burning. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, saute the onions in a few tablespoons of olive oil, over low-medium heat until nearly melted (beyond translucent), then turn up the heat and wait for the singe, stirring often. Once singed, remove the onions from the pan and set aside. Add a few drops more olive oil, and quickly sweat the ginger, just until fragrant.
Place the carrots, garlic, onions/shallots and ginger to the large bowl of a blender and puree until smooth but very thick. Add almond milk slowly until thinned by about half, then add broth to thin to your liking. Change up the proportions of liquid, or eliminate one altogether, to your liking.
Reheat in a large saucepan, and serve garnished with carrot greens, a drizzle of olive oil, and toasted sliced almonds if you like. I use cashews because I always have some in the fridge.
Roasted Rose Harissa Carrots
This recipe was inspired by Israeli-British Chef and Restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, whose passion for layering spices and intense flavours inspires me. Rose Harissa is a smoked chili paste perfumed with dried rose petals, and is available at most ethnic delis and online. Substitute chili paste if harissa is not available.
1 lb (450 gr) fresh, slender orange, white or yellow carrots, greens intact
1T cumin seeds, toasted
2T grape molasses (or liquid honey)
1T rose harissa paste (or to taste)
1T freshly grated orange zest (or lemon)
1T olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
Several springs of Italian parsley or cilantro for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 450F (200C)
Scrub the carrots clean but don’t peel them. Trim the greens to about one inch. (reserve the trimmings for vegetable stock - freeze them)
Toast the cumin seeds over medium heat in a dry heavy pan, for ‘just’ a few seconds until they darken and start to pop. Remove the seeds from the pan immediately to prevent burning.
Combine all ingredients, except for the carrots, in a shallow dish large enough to fit the carrots flat.
Taste the mixture and adjust as you like, adding more harissa or more sweetness. Salt should be a subtle counter-point only.
Coat the carrots completely and lay flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Roast for 15-20 minutes until lovely and dark, with a few singed bits.
Remove from the oven. Arrange roasted carrots on a serving dish, garnish with chopped herbs if desired.
This dish is perfect served at room temperature, as part of a buffet, or a picnic. Its elegant presentation belies the simple preparation.
Other ways to enjoy carrots
Fresh, right out of the garden, rinsed in water warmed by the sun
Sliced or grated into salads
Slice into coins and pickle in a spiced brine that does double-duty as a vinaigrette and/or marinade. See my Small Batch Kimchi-Spiced Carrot Pickles blog post. We go through a jar a week at least in our house, and use them in sandwiches and salads, for garnish, served with olives, chopped into tuna salad, and we Garden-to-Table gift them. The possibilities are endless.
Whiz fresh or roasted carrots and garlic together with canned white cannellini beans, olive oil, and S&P into a colourful and delicious sandwich spread or dip. Add some stock, and you have instant low-fat creamy and delicious soup. Freeze the spread in 8oz deli containers for quick rescue appies or meals when you are pressed for time.
Make an ice cream base from roasted carrots and golden beets, thinned with herb and lemon peel infused simple syrup.
Julienne colourful carrots to serve as a snack, appetizer, or in school lunches. Serve roasted red pepper hummus alongside.
Make carrot top pesto, by swapping fresh carrot greens for part of the traditional greens. Blanch the carrot greens first quickly to remove bitterness, and dry thoroughly.
Freeze carrot greens for use in stock. I have a container in the freezer, and I add vegetable trimming and herb stalks to it almost daily. When it is time to clean out the freezer or crisper drawer, I make stock from tired vegetables and the trimmings .
If you have a veggie loving dog or cat, chop carrot peelings and cook them in an equal measure of water, until soft. Store in the fridge and add to kibble or fresh food. I have a veggie dog who loves carrots, and will dig them up if I let him.
Make fresh juice in a blender or juicer. Add a handful of chopped carrot to fresh berries, some spinach, a small piece of fresh ginger, and an apple. Delicious.
Peel and chop carrots into thick coins or batons, for freezing. Blanch for just one minute in boiling water, remove with a sieve and plunge into cold to set colour, dry completely and pack into freezer bags or containers, removing as much air as possible.
That’s about it from me for this week. I hope that I have inspired you to grow, cook and preserve carrots, the original super food.
Question: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? Answer: A carrot
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.