Plant Profile- Carrot

The humble carrot is a great example of how a single species can express itself in many different ways. The wild species from the middle east from which carrot is derived has barely more of a root than a parsley plant and like many modern vegetables started as a medicinal herb. The oldest barely domesticated forms show increasing root size and a wider variety of colours, including white, yellow, orange, red, purple and black. As the crop was taken outward to Europe and Asia its diversity of forms increased, with roots the size of a man’s arm to tiny round shapes. The final push toward industrial salad types saw plants with rapid growth and high fertiliser response under perfect conditions (regular watering and perfect sandy soil) allowing crops of tender and mild tasting roots suitable for munching straight from the bag to be churned out year round.

For a long time I suspected this particular crop wouldn’t make the cut under my conditions. For one thing I have soil that varies from concrete to light concrete, and the better soil goes underwater at random times (something carrots are pretty intolerant of). Carrots like many root crops do better on sandy soils, especially the modern salad types. Unfortunately almost all of the varieties in circulation fall under this category while I really wanted to grow the old giant horse carrots that would break your jaw if you tried to munch them like bugs bunny, but would add a rich flavour to stews and stirfries. The other advantage these old strong flavoured varieties have is that the chemical responsible for the odor is also responsible for protecting the roots from pests. Modern sweet forms suffer a range of serious pests as a result. I had grown a few carrots in my earlier intensive gardens and while they were OK, the yield and quality relative to store bought wasn’t superior enough to justify growing them that way. They also failed to flower, rotting over our hot and wet summer before they had a chance.

Not to be easily discouraged I decided to give carrots a proper trial in my new zero input gardens. The beds got a top dressing of fresh goat manure (supposedly a no no for growing carrots) and a little charcoal and ash. I sourced about fifteen different named varieties from seed, trying to find older large types where possible. They were direct sowed in shallow rows in soil not that far from clay that had a light layer of broken up topsoil hoed over them from the paths. I didn’t bother keeping track of which variety was planted where since I wasn’t keeping anything pure…the aim was to mix them up. About two thirds of the seed varieties germinated at all. This is pretty typical of commercial seed, and carrot has fairly short viability. Most varieties germinated pretty weakly with only one or two producing large numbers of strong seedlings that required thinning.

If I had only sowed one variety there is a chance nothing would have come up, leading me to think there was something wrong with my techniques. A lot of people give up on sowing seed direct due to starting with dead or weak seed. Even worse I often see nurseries selling punnets of carrot seedlings, with dozens of them all crammed together. Transplanting this crop usually results in twisted roots, and separating all those tiny seedlings would most likely result in them dying. The urge for an instant result can often lead you to eventual disaster in gardening.

The crop grew quite nicely but since the number of plants was quite low I didn’t harvest any at all. I left them to mature and by mid spring flowers were starting to emerge, though only about a quarter of the plants flowered, some varieties more than others. Most of them sat there all summer until they finally rotted, just as my first trials had. Those that did flower were thoroughly mixed up by enthusiastic bees. I collected one umbel of seed at a time as they dried out. Some later seed got rained on before harvest, which supposedly decreases seed quality. It all got mixed together once it was dry.

Armed with a large packet of highly diverse hybridised seed I could now finally get a better sense of what carrot could do for me. Where the first crop took up maybe 3 m of a bed, sowed with two rows, this time I could devote an entire 15 m long bed just to carrots. I prepared the bed and sowed as before but a little earlier in February as the rains started, a little more thickly since it was better to spend time thinning than resowing the crop and I wasn’t sure of my seed quality. They germinated quite thickly and once about 5 cm tall I hand thinned to leave the strongest seedlings, about 5-10 cm apart. The bed was weeded once as the carrots were starting to form a canopy then left apart from a little spot weeding of anything going to seed. Autumn turned very wet, with the scooped out paths between the beds full of water most of the time. I expected the crop to rot, especially given the heavy clay soil, but apart from the odd victim they sailed on.

By late autumn the roots were getting about 1 inch in diameter so I started thinning out to get a harvest,  focussing on the undersized roots and leaving the biggest ones to go to seed. I wiggled medium sized tubers to leave those firmly locked in place to try selecting longer roots. This gave me a useful harvest of about a cup of carrot (grated down for our morning stir fry) that kept going until late winter. Three months of 250 g a day adds up to about 22 kg of carrots, and if I had harvested all the roots it would likely have been over double that. For perspective I can buy 1 kg of industrial carrots for about $2, so all that work yielded less than $50-100 worth of produce. I probably spent an hour preparing the bed, and a couple hours sowing, thinning and weeding, and about six hours harvesting a little each day for three months, a total of nine hours work for $50 worth of produce. It seems my gut instinct of carrots not being a high value crop for a home vegetable gardener were correct. Of course it is impossible to compare carrots with carrots. Some people prefer the bland, sweet crunchy ones in the shop. Mine were of varied sizes, colours and shapes and took a bit more time to scrub and prepare. The flavour was richer and carried itself better in mixed soups and stews.

Where the real value emerges is in the seed. The large crop is just starting to flower and should make a decent quantity of seed. I estimate I will produce at least half a kilogram of cleaned seed, which costs about $20 for 25 g commercially, an equivalent value of $400. If I divide it into smaller packets and sell it then I should be able to return a higher rate per gram. But this is only the start of the story of carrots and myself. Now I have a population that reproduces reliably and produces admirably under my suboptimal conditions I can continue to hone it year by year. Pretty soon I will have something that you can’t buy anywhere else at any price.

Large carrot selected to seed if it feels like it, plus tiddlers that escaped thinning somehow
First carrots going to flower in September. I might keep the early and late flowering seed separate
Grated carrot for dinner with hues of yellow, orange and purple.
A second thinning of undersized roots.

2 thoughts on “Plant Profile- Carrot

  1. Carrots (and parsnips) are my nemesis. Soil is one problem—too heavy—and thinning is the other. I never seem to make time to thin and when I do get round to it, it’s too late to be of any good. I’ll try your method in one of the new planter boxes I’m getting going. The soil under the natural bush is sand (not in the veggie garden) so I’ll create a row of just that and try again. They don’t do well in wicking boxes, because they’re not deep enough.


    1. Heaviness of the soil can be limiting but at least in my cracking clay they seem to do fine. I am sure tender salad types you usually find seed of would struggle though. I thin as soon as a few seedlings get ahead of the others, by the handful if necessary. If I grow them on a bigger scale later on my creek flats I will thin with a hoe much more roughly since it isnt worth that much time. Clumps of seedlings together still fill out well as long as there is enough of a space from one cluster to the next. Carrots do seem to hate artificial soil/potting mix made of pine bark etc, so make sure they have something with a mineral (clay or sand) base in your planter. If you are in Australia I should be able to send some of my seed to you if you want to try it, though I would recommend waiting until the new year when the fresher seed comes in. I plan on putting up a list of seed for sale soon so keep an eye out.


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