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Texas farmer tells you everything you ever wanted to know about carrots

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Carrots
A bunch of organically grown carrots from Marshall Hinsley's Texas garden Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Carrot top popping up from soil.
A carrot's readiness for harvest can be estimated by the size of the top of the root that pops up from the soil. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Carrot sprout
Carrot seeds are slow to sprout, often taking up to a month to germinate. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Carrots
Carrot top popping up from soil.
Carrot sprout
Marshall Hinsley

I like carrots; they're the tasty go-to vegetable for vitamin A. They're delicious any way they're cooked, and they're always in season. But even several years after I decided to opt out of industrialized agriculture and grow my own food sustainably, I still found myself adding a pound of carrots to my grocery cart each week as I browsed through the produce section of Whole Foods Market.

The reason for my reluctance to grow my own carrots is hard to pinpoint, but generally, I simply didn't feel excited about it. Store-bought carrots were cheap, or cheap enough. They were fresh, it seemed. And, a carrot's a carrot, right?

But then about two years ago, I bought a packet of organic carrot seeds, just to give them a try. Planted and watered, they sprouted and grew. Two months later, I ate a carrot as if for the first time in my life.

 Luckily, carrots are easy to grow. What's more, in Texas they can be grown year-round.

My first clue that I was in for a novel experience came as I pried my first homegrown carrot up from the ground and its sweet scent wafted up to my nose. Who knew that carrots were aromatic? Then, once cooked, this first specimen in my carrot experiment filled my kitchen with fragrance. It had a delicate, carroty scent — like a carrot soap might have, or a carrot room freshener.

As for taste, the carrot's intense flavor stood out from the rest of my dish, rather than blending in with whatever else was on my plate. Even the texture was different: crunchy, yet it sort of melted in my mouth. I knew instantly that there was no going back.

Luckily, carrots are easy to grow. What's more, in Texas they can be grown year-round.

The nuts and bolts of carrots
The heavy clay soils of the Texas' blackland prairie, though, are not the best for carrot growing, so I grow them in a 4-by-8-foot raised bed full of light compost mixed in with the native soil. Coconut coir helps to keep the soil mix loose for the carrot to grow a single root instead of what looks like a pair of legs.

Homegrown carrots rarely take the shape of the perfectly tapered, long roots from the produce section. Instead, they tend to have more diversity: twisted roots, an occasional bulbous end, seldom more than about six inches long. What they lack in uniformity, they make up for in flavor.

In each raised bed that I allot for carrots, I make eight, 2-inch-deep rows parallel to the 4-foot side of the bed. Then, I sprinkle carrot seed in clusters about every three inches — about three seeds per cluster.

To finish, I crumble soil into each row so that the seed is buried less than half an inch. Alternatively for carrots that develop radish-shaped roots, I spread the soil in the bed out flat, sprinkle the seeds evenly throughout the whole bed, and cover them with a light topping of compost or coconut coir.

Then comes the hardest part of growing carrots: waiting. Carrots can take two weeks or more more to sprout if the soil is not kept moist at all times.

 Carrots sprout best when temperatures are between 55 and 85, so October is a perfect time of the year to start growing them.

Now that October rain has replenished moisture in our top soil, the task of maintaining a raised bed should be a little easier, but I often must lightly water each bed of carrots in the morning, afternoon and evening just to keep the surface of the soil from drying out and delaying germination. Carrots sprout best when temperatures are between 55 and 85, so October is a perfect time of the year to start growing them.

Once carrots finally do sprout and grow up an inch or two, I thin them out so that there's about three inches between them, and they're set. Little needs to be done to keep them going.

If the soil begins to dry out, they need to be watered deeply to reach down to the bottom of their roots, but aside from that, they can endure light frosts and temperatures down to the mid 20s. Beginning in mid-November, though, I cover mine with a frost blanket just for insurance.

Depending on the variety, carrots will be ready to pick about two months after they sprout. I try to plant small areas of carrots every other week for as long as the weather forecasts call for temperatures above the mid-50s. This ensures that I always have carrots ready to harvest when I'm ready to pick them. The best way to store carrots until they're needed is to simply leave them in the ground, growing and staying fresh all through the winter and spring.

Harvesting carrots is easy; when they're mature, I grab the leaves right at the stems where they meet the carrot root and pull them out of the soil. For some reason, using both hands and holding more of them stems and leaves while I pull them up ensures that they don't break off at the root before the carrot comes up and out.

I can usually judge which carrots are large enough to pick by looking at the top of the root that pokes up from the ground by about a half inch. However, if my guess on the root size is wrong and I pull up a carrot about the size of a broken pencil, so be it. They're even sweeter when they're small — real, bona fide baby carrots, not the chiseled-down broken carrot scraps passed off as baby carrots at the grocery store.

One they're up from the ground, my carrots are usually a little dirty. A quick rinse in an outdoor sink is all it takes to make them ready for the kitchen. To scrub them clean of all soil, I use a small, dull kitchen knife to scrape them lightly, dragging the blade backward across the root, not cutting. This helps to remove soil particles and small, hairy root fragments.

I do not peel carrots, because the nutrients are packed in to the thin surface of the root; peeling would remove their healthy goodness. Once they're clean, they're ready to eat, cooked or raw.

Now that I've begun growing my own carrots, I've found that there's more to choose from than long, orange roots. Atomic carrots are red and full of lycopene, like tomatoes. Parisian carrots develop planet-shaped roots like a radish and are sought after by gourmet chefs. Cosmic purple carrots are, of course, purple and eye-catching.

In my garden right now are:

  • Parisian — the quickest to be ready: 57 days from sprouting to harvest
  • Royal Chantery — regarded as a good, all-around carrot, especially for Texas, because it can grow well enough in our soil. It's ready in 70 days.
  • Scarlet Nantes — Ready in 65 days, they're sweet and tender.
  • Danvers 126 — Ready in 65 days, a good carrot for less-than-ideal soil because of its high fiber content that holds up well in heavy soil.
  • Carnival Blend — a free-for-all frenzy of red, yellow, orange, purple and white carrots blended and packed by Botanical Interests.

Gardening in the fall and winter is new to me. In the past, the northern bias of most gardening literature led me to believe that November through February of the next year were dead months. Some gardening magazines even skip a December or January issue, and the ones that don't usually only have articles about home decor, crafts or how to plan for spring.

In Texas, though, we have the chance to grow cool-season veggies from late fall till next summer in a year-round operation. Now that I know how well carrots grow in Texas any time of year, I think I can scratch them off my grocery shopping list for good.

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