At nearly every community garden in Los Angeles, and at every school garden too, someone is probably growing carrots.
Sweet, crunchy and familiar, a freshly uprooted carrot is a fun surprise, like unwrapping a present, wrapped in earth. But even though the domesticated carrot (Daucus carota subspecies sativus) is so common, it can be surprisingly difficult to grow.
There are three key tricks to growing carrots successfully, but before we dive into that, know that carrots don’t flower until the second year. Even then, carefully preserved seed can cross-fertilize with Queen Anne’s Lace, the wild carrot. The result is a whitish, woody, edible but unpalatable root.
Many gardeners don’t let carrots mature to seed-growing stage. They yank up the taproot when it’s a few months old, crisp and full of sugar.
In Los Angeles it’s possible to grow carrots nearly year-round, sowing seed every few weeks to have a continuous crop. Carrots come in varied shapes, sizes and colors -- white, red, black, yellow, purple. These are the markers of the carrot’s widespread history of cultivation from its origins in Afghanistan.
The familiar orange carrot was the focus of Dutch cultivators 700 years ago. The French later refined the crop, leading to the Nantes variety commonly grown today. Meanwhile, in India and China, red and purple carrots were the rage.
The three key steps to a flourishing carrot patch start with the soil. It should be sandy and light, free of clay and rocks that can produce stunted or misshapen roots.
Sow the seeds widely and keep them moist, out of the light, covered with a section of burlap bag to retain moisture and to provide protection from the sun.
Finally, thin the seedlings mercilessly. Space plants 3 to 6 inches apart and feed periodically with used coffee grounds or compost.
If you’re growing carrots for seed, cut the plants back at the end of the season, cover them with mulch and wait for spring. If you’re looking to buy, two sources for interesting varieties are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and California-based Kitizawa Seed Co.
The Global Garden, our series on the world of plants growing in L.A. gardens, appears here on Tuesdays. If you like the series and want more installments, let us know by sharing the stories through Facebook and Twitter.