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GARDEN FRESH

Underground Royalty

November 03, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

When did you last taste a carrot so sugar-sweet and richly flavored it seemed almost a different vegetable? When was the last time you pulled from the earth a fat round carrot no bigger than the tip of your thumb? When did you bite into a carrot so richly orange it was almost scarlet? And when did you munch on a single carrot that gave you more Vitamin A than the recommended minimum daily allowance?

The problem with carrots raised for mass marketing is that they're selected for one quality: They can be pulled and processed by a machine without breaking. By and large, they're Imperator types--handsome extra-strong roots, but flavor is not on their resume.

The royalty of carrotdom are crisp rich orange Nantes types, long and straight with squarish tips, no core and glorious flavor. Developed in the 19th Century in France, Nantes are the carrots in French markets today. Since Nantes are too fragile for machine harvesting, to taste them in this country you must grow them yourself.

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Nantes are at least 5 1/2 inches long, but there's delight and good flavor in baby carrots--skinny and three inches long, or a fat inch around. These are not prematurely picked Nantes or Imperators, but actual types of carrots that are the easiest to grow and fastest to mature.

You can find carrots called "babies" in most markets, but unless you bought them from an honest farmer, they're probably what are known in the trade as "grinder baby carrots." Slender carrots pulled from the earth at six inches long, they're then cut in half and shaped at both ends to appear as two. Counterfeits.

The real things are slender three-inch cultivars such as Little Finger, Minicor and Baby Sweet Hybrid, and small beet-shaped carrots, the most noteworthy these days being Thumbelina, tender and sweet and ranging in size from grape to plum.

Growing carrots takes attention. The seeds are fine; they germinate slowly and irregularly and must never be allowed to dry out. A cover of burlap kept moist until they germinate is good insurance.

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The trick to growing carrots effortlessly is to sow them so you don't have to thin them, but close enough so their roots will crowd out--and leaves will shade out--weeds. That's from two to four inches apart, depending on the thickness of the carrots. Stokes Seeds offers pelleted carrot seeds, which helps keep seeds moist while germinating and makes it easier to sow thinly. Otherwise, mix seeds with builder's sand (or raw Cream of Wheat) for easy visibility and handling. Sow seeds every few weeks during the season for an abundant and continuous supply.

Carrots need at least five hours of sun a day and normal amounts of water. Their ferny leaves (all you see) make a lovely addition to the mixed border, although they'll leave a bare space when you pull them up, so consider that in your plan.

The ideal carrot soil is sandy loam, or at least something friable and well-draining. If your soil is clay or filled with rocks and you're feeling lazy, grow baby carrots in a foot-deep container filled with a good-quality soilless mix.

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But if your soil is inhospitable to carrots and you feel energetic, build a raised bed for them. Make a box with 10-inch-wide planks and fill with the closest thing you can get to sandy loam. The problem with adding organic amendments to clay soil for growing carrots is that materials high in nitrogen--compost, rotted manure and such--will make the carrots hairy and cause them to fork. It's best to work these amendments somewhere else and grow carrots there next year. But it's worth trying Red Cored Chantenay, Danvers Halflong and Thumbelina on problem soils.

To grow long carrots in hospitable soil, you must dig it to a fine tilth a foot deep, taking out all rocks. I've done this a few times, but I'd rather grow baby carrots and prepare the soil just six or eight inches down. It is true that the deeper the soil, the better the carrots, no matter what size.

These days, I also concentrate on the carrots rich in Vitamin A: A-Plus Hybrid is remarkably rich in the vitamin, and Sweetness Hybrid has both beta carotene (precursor of Vitamin A) and extra sweet flavor. Tastier than a pill.

Baby-type carrots--except for Baby Spike and Thumbelina--must be harvested at the length given in the catalogue. Should the weather turn hot or should the carrots be stressed any other way, these delicacies grow too big too fast and lose their quality. You won't know whether the carrot is ready to harvest until you've pulled it up, and once you've pulled it up, there's no setting it back in the soil. The solution? On a marker at each patch note its name and expected date of harvest--that way, none will be lost to bumbling.

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