Carrots are native to the mountains of Afghanistan, where they were first cultivated at least 3,000 years ago. Those original Afghan carrots were purple and bitter. The soldiers who crossed Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great to the Mongols and Persians, carried Afghan carrot seeds back to their homelands and spread the cultivation of carrots throughout the Old World.
In the 1700s, the Dutch developed a new carrot that was slender, orange and sweet. This variety, called the Long Orange, became the basis for all modern carrots; its descendants are virtually the only carrots available in the supermarkets of America.
However, older and more diverse varieties are coming back into style. Visit Baker Creek Seed Company for the best selection of heirloom carrot varieties. Here are our favorites:
Red Core Chanteray: Best for sandy soil. Grows long and slender. This is the sweetest carrot of all; great raw, juiced or cooked.
Danver’s Half-Long: Best for clay-rich soil. Grows up to 7” or less where soil is difficult to penetrate. They are short, but can grow fat for a nice appearance. Featuring great flavor raw or cooked: They’re good for breaking up soil for next planting.
Black Nebula: Stunning black carrot from India, this variant is not sweet but has a nice, interesting, berry-like flavor. It retains a purplish/black color after cooking. Black Nebula carrot juice is gorgeous and delicious.
Pusa Asita Black Carrot: Another excellent black carrot from India. Taking 100 days to mature means an April or May harvest, which is perfect because this carrot, unlike the others, can take the heat. Also, if we get an early spring and summer, the Pusa Asita will perform where the other varieties may turn bitter.
Carrots like a good frost and actually grow sweetest in cold weather. Companion plant your carrot seeds with radishes (see below) for a clever gardening hack. Planting in December brings a January radish harvest and a March/April carrot harvest.
Full sun. Plant from seed. Well-tilled, well-drained, sandy soil. Add copious compost to clay-rich soil; till deeply. Companion plant with radishes — combine carrot and radish seeds 1:1 in a cup of clean, fine sand. Broadcast the sand/seed mixture evenly across the garden bed, then rake the bed, draw lines 2” apart down the bed and pour seed/sand mixture into lines and rake into soil. Water often until sprouting, then as needed.
Carrots take three weeks just to sprout, but radishes mature within 20 to 30 days. Harvesting radishes helps thin carrots (a tedious job). Thin any remaining carrots to final spacing of two/three inches. Carrots mature in 70 to 100 days. Harvest when green tops are bushy and roots show an inch across. If hard to pull, water garden before harvest.
Carrot tops have a vibrant, slightly sweet flavor and are a great stand-in for parsley in tabbouleh or stirred into shrimp pasta. They are great shredded in salads, muffins, straight out of the fridge or tossed in soups. A great way to prepare them is to roast them with a little olive oil, honey and za’atar. Don’t bother peeling your carrots, but make sure to wash them well if you leave the skins on.
Carrots are nature’s best source of beta-carotene, the anti-oxidant that gives carrots their orange color. Our bodies convert beta-carotene to vitamin A, which is essential for eye health. Carrots are also a key source of vitamin C, folate, copper, potassium, manganese and iron. Purple carrots are rich in anthocyanins, which help fight diabetes and cancer. Carrots are a garden super food.