Carrots are not only a favourite veg, which rabbits also love, they make one of the tastiest teatime cakes. As kids we are told to eat carrots because they ‘help us see in the dark’, which is not entirely an old wives’ tale as they are packed with vitamin A that helps us see in dim light! They also provide vitamins that nourish the skin and protect it from sun damage.
Whilst they are usually orange, carrots also come in yellow, purple, white and red, usually with yellow or orange cores. The purple ones are especially worth growing, as they have a delicious slightly spicy flavour with a kid-friendly sweetness. They are also packed with antioxidants that help prevent health issues like lung and heart diseases, diabetes and cancer.
Five hundred years ago, most carrots were white. Sixteenth-century Dutch breeders created the orange version, quadrupling the vegetable’s beta carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A
You can grow a mixture of ‘rainbow’ coloured carrots from seed and eat them raw or better still, roasted to enjoy their super sweet and even peppery tastes and health benefits. The light-coloured carrots especially tend to have a crisp, juicy texture.
Red and purple varieties taste surprisingly spicy as they contain fewer natural sugars
Carrots grow best in well-drained soil with few stones as these can cause the roots to become forked and distorted and don’t feed them as this will only encourage greenery at the expense of root growth. Carrots also dislike freshly manured soil, which can causes carrot to crack, so your veg plot is best prepared in the autumn before sowing. Carrots exposed to significant fluctuations in soil moisture also tend to crack, and cracked carrots don’t store as well as perfect ones.
Smooth round, bite-size carrots, such as the Paris Market 5 – Atlas seeds from Mr Fothergill’s, which are fast to mature and have a good flavour, can be grown in containers or even in clay soils
If you have clay soil, try growing varieties such as Parmex and Carson, which have short roots, or alternatively grow your carrots in containers that are at least 20cm deep to allow the roots to grow. Choose small or early varieties of carrot too, such as Parmex, Mini Finger, Mokum or Chantenay types such as Supreme Chantenay Red Cored.
Early varieties such as Nantes 2 can be sown as early as February under cloches or in greenhouse borders and the sweet, crisp cylindrical 16-18cm roots can be harvested within 9 weeks. Growing carrots under cloches helps warm the soil and speeds up germination, which is particularly useful if you live in cold regions or want to make an early start. Maincrop varieties like Autumn King 2 are usually sown in April and can take around 12 weeks to maturity.
For a steady supply throughout the summer and autumn, sow in batches every 2-3 weeks from mid-March to the end of May (Keep the soil moist until germination, which should take about 10-20 days) and you’ll be pulling up mature roots within 4 months and can use any of the early ‘thinning’s’ for salads, soups and stir-fries
As carrot seed is very fine, so make sowing easier try mixing the seeds with a little sharp sand. If you’re growing finger or baby carrots the final spacing of 5cm between plants will be sufficient and for larger maincrop varieties 7cm..
Carrot fly are a common pest and the larvae of these flies burrow into the carrots leaving brown tunnels as they go. If badly infested, the carrots can become susceptible to rots and are often inedible.
Grow resistant varieties of carrot such as Flyaway or Resistafly. As female carrot flies are attracted by the smell of freshly pulled carrots and crushed foliage, thin carrots in the evening when the flies are less active and dispose of them immediately.
Covering your carrots with Enviromesh will protect your crop from carrot fly
Another major enemy of carrots is wireworm. Unfortunately, the damage will only become visible when the carrots are dug up. There is no control available but the crop is still edible if the affected areas are cut out.
When harvesting carrots, it’s best to cut off the feathery leaves. If you don’t, the leaves will draw moisture away from the roots, making them quickly go limp. Carrots that are dug, the tops trimmed and then washed and patted dry before being placed in plastic bags in the refrigerator should keep for several months!
If you have grown maincrop carrots and plan to keep them during winter it’s best to harvest them by mid October at the latest. If there is any sun at harvest time, allow the carrots to dry off on the ground for a day. Store them in sand in a cool, dry and dark place – they should keep for a month or two.
Carrots can be served as a side dish when boiled, mashed, roasted or fried. Jamie Oliver’s serving suggestion is to boil them with orange, garlic and herbs. I like them combined with toasted caraway seeds and for a salad, grated raw carrots mixed with chopped coriander and peanuts with a dressing made with lemon juice, sugar and salt.
Carrots make a tasty, healthy breakfast drink and pairs well with apples, tomatoes almost any green vegetable or fruit
Teatime treat – carrot cake
225 ml sunflower oil, plus extra to grease
225 g light muscovado sugar
4 medium eggs
225 g self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1½ tsp each mixed spice, ground cinnamon and ground ginger
150 g sultanas
200 g carrots, coarsely grated
50-75 g walnuts, roughly chopped
250 g soft, unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
400 g Philadelphia cream cheese, at room temperature
300 g icing sugar
Preheat oven to 170°C (150°C fan) mark 3. Grease and line the base and sides of a round 20.5cm cake tin with parchment paper.
Put the oil, sugar and eggs into a large bowl and whisk together until smooth.
Add the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices to the bowl and mix to combine then stir in the sultanas, carrots and nuts.
Put the mixture into the prepared tin, level and bake for 1hr 5min or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Leave to cool for 5min in tin, then remove from tin and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
To make the topping, beat the butter and vanilla in a large bowl until completely smooth then add the cream cheese and mix to combine.
Sift over the icing sugar and mix until smooth and fluffy.
Cut the cooled cake in half horizontally through the middle. Use half the topping to sandwich the halves back together and place cake on a cake plate.
Spread remaining topping over top of the cake and decorate with walnuts or marzipan carrot decorations.