Garden to Table
January 27, 2008
GARDEN TO TABLE
An excellent source of vitamins, potassium and folic acid, carrots contain a high level of beta-carotene – the substance that lends carrots their distinct orange hue – and are known for their healthy properties. They are also extremely easy to grow in a home garden.
Early carrots date back some 5000 years ago to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, but modern day carrots are of 17th century Dutch descent (this is when truly orange-colored carrots first appeared). The discovery of Vitamin A in the carrot, and the fact that it was rumored to prevent night blindness, made it a popular commodity during World War II.
There are hundreds of varieties of carrots, and they are often categorized by length. Shorter types, like the Red-Cored Chantenay, are better suited for heavy soils. Another variety, the Danvers Half-long, is known for its heavy yields and good storage capabilities. The gourmet Little Finger is sweet and known for its high sugar content. Other varieties include Nantes Half-long, Pioneer and Spartan Bonus. “Baby carrots” can be either true baby carrots, or grown to look small. They first appeared in U.S. supermarkets in 1989.
Carrots are a cold-climate crop and can be planted as soon as the soil can be readied in the spring. Temperatures should range between 60 and 70 degrees for highest quality roots. Carrots do best when planted in deep, loose, well-drained soil, with a pH range of 6.0 to 6.8 – in other words, not too acidic. Raised beds are ideal as well because they receive little compaction from foot traffic.
If planted as seeds, planting depth is recommended at ¼ inch deep in rows spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. When the seedlings emerge, they should be thinned to one inch apart, and then thinned again to about two to three inches apart as the tops of the carrots grow thicker. As you plant your seeds, you’ll find that curious children may enjoy planting a carrot top. However, though the carrot tops will sprout and grow into bushy plants, they will not grow into another carrot.
Carrots take about 65 to 75 days to reach maturity, depending on variety. Harvesting usually occurs when carrots reach finger size, but they do not have to be harvested all at once – carrots can actually stay in the soil until winter. Hardy and strong, they can even tolerate a light frost. Generally, smaller carrots are juicer and more tender than larger carrots.
Harvested carrots, placed in plastic bags, can last for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. They can last even longer when stored in a moist environment at near freezing temperatures. Before storing, carrot tops should be removed.
Cooking a carrot can make it easier to digest; mildly heating a carrot can improve the extractability of beta-carotene and raise some levels of B vitamins. Raw carrots are slightly higher in vitamins A, E and C. Eaten whole, raw, cooked, chopped, grated or as juice, carrots make a wonderful addition to salads, stews, soups and sides and are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.
The top three producing states for carrots are California, Michigan and Colorado. California accounts for nearly 75% of all fresh market production. Total U.S. carrot production for the fresh and processing markets was valued at $577.5 million in 2004.