Freshly pulled 'Healthmaster' carrots await their final trip to the kitchen.
The carrot is an attractive little plant with lacy, pinnately compound leaves. Each leaf is composed of many finely dissected leaflets, and the entire leaf is triangular in outline. The leaves all originate from the base of the plant and stand a foot or two tall. If left in the ground for a second growing season, carrots will produce flowers. The tiny white flowers are arranged in showy compound umbels that stand a foot or so above the leaves. The tapered taproot for which carrots are grown can be 2-36 in (5-91 cm) long, depending on the variety and the growing conditions.
Steve havests carrots from his (beautifully mulched) vegetable garden.
Among the many cultivars are those selected to mature at a small size, called "baby" or "gourmet" carrots; those with increased concentrations of beta carotene such as 'Healthmaster', 'Beta Sweet' and 'Apache'; those with short, stocky roots for growing in hard, compressed soils ('Thumbelina' is one); and dozens of open-pollinated Old World varieties with stronger flavors and skin colors ranging from red and purple to black. A newly developed cultivar called 'Nutri-red' has lycopene instead of carotene. Lycopene is a powerful anti-oxidant normally associated with tomatoes and believed to offer protection against prostate cancer.
The carrot probably was developed in Afghanistan from the wild Queen Anne's lace (D. carota var. carota), which is native to Asia and Europe and widely naturalized in North America.
Culture Light: Full sun for best production, but carrots can tolerate partial shade.
Moisture: Regular watering is best. Carrots will go dormant and may even lose their leaves during excessive droughts or hot weather, but they sprout back when conditions get better. The roots from such carrots are woody and tasteless, but the carrots will still flower and produce seed. Hardiness: Carrots are quite cold hardy, withstanding temperatures into the low teens (°F), and even seedlings can tolerate moderate frosts. Flavor is enhanced by frost. Mature carrots can be left in the ground over winter. Protect with mulch during severe freezes. Propagation: Carrots are grown from seed, usually planted in rows a foot or more apart, and then thinned to only 3-6 in (7.6-15 cm). Germination may take a week or more. In northern areas carrot planting is timed to avoid the main hatch of the carrot root fly, whose maggots attack carrot roots; consult your local county extension agent for dates in your area. In the south, carrots are grown in the winter and carrot root flies are not a problem.
Carrots' lacy foliage would make an attractive border that you can pull up and eat at the end of the season.
Carrots are very easy to grow. Plant in loose, friable soil or the roots will be misshapen. Carrots can be left in the ground until needed except in very warm areas, where hot weather causes the flavor to deteriorate. Fertilize once or twice during growth, but don't work manure into the soil, as this causes the roots to fork and develop excessive root hairs. If you want "baby" carrots, grow varieties selected to mature at small sizes since standard carrots picked when small lack color and flavor. If you want a trophy carrot, make a cone-shaped hole with a stout stick and fill it with a good rich compost, then plant a couple seeds in that; thin to the strongest seedling, fertilize weekly with a foliar spray, and get ready to enter the county fair! Carrots can develop green "shoulders" where they extend a little above the soil; this may be unsightly but it is not harmful.
In Afghanistan and India, a fermented alcoholic beverage is made from carrot roots, a flour from dried carrot roots is used as a thickener, and the leaves are eaten in soups and stews.
Carrot roots are high in carotene which humans convert to vitamin A. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on plants in the carrot family, and the caterpillars feed on the foliage, so grow a few extra carrots for the butterflies!
The root of the wild carrot, or Queen Anne's lace, is also eaten, and its aromatic seeds are used as a flavoring.