Prep is vital with carrots, says Steve Wratten.

Do you grow your carrots or, perish the thought, buy them? Of all the vegetables on which we rely, carrots must be up there in the league of "must have". Kids love them cut into matchstick lengths as a crunchy, healthy snack, to subdue their hunger pangs before the evening meal.

If you buy these (what should be) bright orange roots from the supermarket, you must have noticed two obvious characteristics. They are pallid, not brightly coloured and, amazingly, are all more or less the same size. Maximising yield, not flavour or colour, is the first reason for this, coupled with loads of irrigation. All the same size? Don't blame the grower, it's the supermarket - they demand unblemished, uniform fruit and vegetables, so the growers and the merchants have to obey.

I grow (but never buy) three or four carrot varieties each year, starting by sowing Senior or Samantha in my tunnel house in May, often on the sad day when I harvest the Last Tomato.

Where you live, in a climate that's often wet and warm, you can probably sow carrots in the open air in most months, although the shortest days will slow these remarkable roots a bit.

Advertisement

I continue with the two above varieties from late August, in sheltered but sunny seed beds and maybe a couple more types later. Frankly, fresh carrots grated in a salad, with good olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, finely-chopped flatleaf parsley and a little sea salt and black pepper, are a delight. I would use chervil instead of parsley, if I could grow the flipping stuff but, for me, it either doesn't germinate or runs to flower as soon as I go near it.

You can buy seeds of fancy-coloured carrots, too, if you are feeling adventurous; yellow, white and even purple ones are available. In fact, the first carrots are likely to have come from Afghanistan and were purple. Plant breeders soon bred that colour out of it as they did not like their sauces and gravies taking on a purple colour. A pity in a way, because the purple ones contain vitamin A and beta-carotene like ordinary carrots and also are rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidant compounds.

Believe it or not, some home growers give up on carrots; too difficult, they say. Poor germination / the weeds take over too quickly / the roots are often forked and nobbly / the larvae of the dreaded carrot fly clobber them, etc.

Fine, sieved soil with a little sand added at sowing time makes a big difference to root shape and size.

I dig the soil, rake it to remove most lumps (I throw them in the compost bin), make a drill 1.5 cm deep, sprinkle sieved soil and sand into the drill to give the seeds a soft, uniform landing platform, then cover the seeds thinly with more of that sieved, fine-grained stuff. Then I firm it all down with my delicate fingertips (!) and water it. I always keep a full watering can next to the rows and keep the whole lot moist up to and beyond germination. Weeds: I pull them out when they are young but this is tricky if the seeds are sown too thickly.

"So there you have it", as Lee Goldberg famously said. He also said "Nature is a rotten mess". Well, your carrot bed won't be a mess if you follow the above simple rules.

Steve Wratten is Professor of Ecology at Lincoln University