I can buy good organic carrots any time, but none of them taste like carrots freshly pulled from the garden. Truly fresh carrots have round, earthy flavor notes that come alive with the first bite. And then there's the texture. Carrots newly pulled from moist soil are as crisp as apples. Growing carrots that look and taste great requires attention to a few important details, but beautiful, full-flavored garden carrots are worth a bit of extra trouble.
First you must choose a variety, or perhaps two or three. Half of how a carrot tastes is genetics. The other half is how it's grown and harvested. The Carrot Museum lists a solid roster of excellent varieties for the UK; in the US, 'Bolero' and other improved 'Nantes' varieties are excellent choices for a fine orange carrot. Don't be afraid to try yellow, red, or purple carrots, too. Yellow carrots compare nicely with orange carrots for eating raw, but varieties that are red or purple to the core taste far better roasted or grilled. Properly prepared, they are addictively good.
Carrot Planting Basics
Unless you happen to have wonderfully fertile garden loam, plan to spend a ridiculous amount of time preparing your carrot bed. Carrot roots must encounter no obstructions, a major cause of forking, which means removing rocks and breaking up clods until the bed is finely crumbled at least 12 inches ( 30 cm) deep. As you dig, work in a knuckle-deep blanket of screened compost (homemade is great), picking out any small sticks or unrotted pieces of organic matter.
The use of compost in growing carrots is important for two reasons. Compost helps defend carrots from diseases that might injure the growing tip, another cause of forked roots. Garden carrots also need soil that is well endowed with potassium, which is naturally abundant in homemade compost. I also mix in a very light application of organic fertilizer when preparing to plant carrots, and then water the bed thoroughly.
Carrot seeds are naturally slow germinators, but you can speed things up a bit by priming the seeds indoors. Starting three to four days before you plan to sow them, soak carrot seeds in water for an hour, and then transfer them to a damp paper towel. Fold to enclose the seeds, then put inside an airtight container. Keep at room temperature. Plant the primed seeds within five days. I find that it is seldom necessary to prime seeds sown in spring, my rainiest season, but priming carrot seeds is tremendously helpful in summer, when I'm planting carrots for fall.
Once my carrot planting is done, I cover the seeded bed with an old cotton blanket to prevent washouts and keep the soil moist. Seeds germinate in one to two weeks, depending on the weather. One to two weeks later, they must be thinned, weeded, or both. For either operation I highly recommend a small pair of scissors, which is the least traumatic way to remove unwanted competitors. Once seedlings have germinated, there can be no disturbance to the soil within a thumbnail's distance from the base of the plant. Innocently pulling a weed might have unintended effects upon the little growing carrot (the forking risk again), so snipping is safer than pulling when you're thinning and weeding close to your little carrots.
Once carrots are up and growing, regular water and routine weeding will get you a nice carrot crop in a couple of months -- unless you live where carrot rust fly is a constant worry. Use lightweight enviromesh (row cover) in areas where insect pressure is severe. Of equal importance is avoiding bruising carrot foliage, which releases gaseous plumes that attract rust fly adults in search of host plants.
Harvesting Garden Carrots
Immature or baby carrots are flavor weaklings, so it is always best to wait until garden carrots are fully mature to harvest them. Many varieties push up as the roots gain size, which is a sure sign of ripeness. The tops of carrot roots that are exposed to sun will turn green and taste bitter, so I hill up soil or mulch around carrots that pop up before I'm ready to dig them.
For top flavor, always try to harvest carrots when the soil is cool and moist. Then trim off the tops right away, because any attached foliage will take moisture from the roots rather quickly. Lightly wash to remove soil, and then promptly refrigerate your garden carrots. Technically they may last for months, but I suggest eating them truly fresh to get the full experience of carrots at their best.
By Barbara Pleasant