The carrot: growing sweeter by the year

The first man who ever pulled a carrot from the ground, with that evening's mess of pottage in mind, probably dug up a purple root. Presumably, too, the foraging man was more than just a little hungry, for the carrot of the time would have tasted like nothing we would tolerate on today's dinner plate. The bitter terpenoids in the original carrot so overwhelmed its sugar content that for centuries furriers used to rub carrot juice into their pelts to protect them from moths. Indeed, the old Greek word from which the name carrot is derived meant ``to burn.''

Fortunately, what the moths avoided men persisted with, and over the intervening 3,000 years the once-bitter vegetable has become the snapping-crisp sweet root we use today in everything from bisques to marmalade. A mutant of the original purple root brought about the yellow carrot which, in turn, spawned the most popular orange carrots of today.

And the end is not yet in sight. The modern carrot is getting sweeter and more richly colored almost by the year.

The French made the big jump toward sweeter carrots a century ago, and Western European breeders of today are again doing some impressive things with the root. Some of these new, sweeter lines are being made available in the United States this coming season -- Lindoro (Geo. W. Park Seeds, Greenwood, S.C.), Mokum (Thompson & Morgan, Jackson, N.J.), and Rondino and Clarion (Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, Maine) among them. Toudo is a sweet American-bred line being offered by Burpee, Warminster, Pa. Then there is Scarlet Wonder, colorful as well as sweet, from Gurney Seed & Nursery, Yankton, S.D.

The Dutch breeder Simon Zoodsma wanted a sweet carrot that would be cylindrical and smooth so it would wash easily and show a bright, orange root when clean. It took him 10 years to combine the flavor and color into the shape he wanted, but ultimately he achieved his goal. Although earliness and high yields were not his primary concern, with Lindoro he got them anyway. The result is a large, long-keeping storage variety that is ready for the table in as little as 63 days.

Clarion and Rondino also come from the Dutch. Both are cylindrical in shape, but Rondino grows slightly larger than Clarion, a 7-inch carrot which at 62 days takes slightly longer to mature.

In recent years the whispered word out of Norway was of a carrot whose exceptional sweetness made even the normally staid Norwegian scientists excited. It had one flaw, however: the tops of the new line were brittle and snapped off too easily for the supermarket trade.

Even so, what might bother commercial growers would prove no problem to home gardeners. So Mokum, as the new carrot is called, is being offered to the back-yard grower.

Toudo, like the European varieties, is cylindrical in shape, almost as thick at the bottom as the top. All of these new varieties are F1 hybrids, so the seed is somewhat more costly than for open-pollinated varieties. To keep the cost of a packet of seeds below a dollar, the seed companies have reduced the amount of seeds in a packet.

The need, then, is to get as many seeds as possible to reach their potential. So take these steps:

Soil preparation: Loosen the soil to a depth of about 15 inches, remove all but the smallest stones, and incorporate plenty of compost or other soil-improving amendments. (Avoid fresh manure, which may result in twisted and hairy roots.) The idea is to produce a light, fluffy soil that the roots will have no difficulty penetrating.

Sowing. Sow seed at between one-eighth and one-half inch deep (the hotter the weather, the deeper the seed can go). The biggest obstacle to good carrot germination is crusted soil. I find sowing seed in drills (shallow furrows) and then covering them with vermiculite or perlite which will not crust over results in even germination. Carrots will germinate when soil temperatures reach 42 degrees F., but do best between 70 and 80 degrees F.

In the early spring you can speed up germination by covering the seed bed with clear plastic. Remove the plastic as soon as the young seedlings push through. Late-season sowings benefit by covering the seed bed with an old sheet. This tempers the often extreme soil temperatures of summer, prevents the soil from baking hard, and still allows enough light penetration to encourage germination.

Mulching. Carrots appreciate a mulch once they are up and growing strongly, both for its moisture-holding qualities and for the way it suppresses competition from weeds. If deep enough (2 to 3 inches) it prevents exposed roots from going green at the shoulder. I place thin slats of wood in the soil (6 inches apart) where I plan to sow carrots and then pour papier-mach'e in between. When the slats are removed they leave neat lines where the seed will be sown and a paper mulch that eliminates competing weeds from all but the rows themselves.

Water. In dry periods water deeply to encourage long roots. Carrots develop length before they begin to thicken out.

Thinning. Make the first thinning by cutting down the unwanted plants with a pair of scissors, leaving the remaining seedlings about 1 inch apart. Carrots can be eaten the moment they are finger-thick, so subsequent thinnings can also be a form of harvest as well. Thin in this way until the final spacing in the rows is about 3 inches between each carrot.

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