Rainbow carrots are popular at farmers’ markets, but you can grow these beauties in your garden too. And with roots in rich shades of purple, red, yellow and pure white, why wouldn’t you? They’re just as easy to grow as orange carrots and add fun and flavour to the garden. Growing brightly coloured carrots comes with another benefit—your kids might actually eat their vegetables!
Carrots aren’t difficult to grow but can take several weeks to germinate. To encourage high germination rates, sow seed shallowly and keep the bed well watered until you see the green sprouts emerging. When the plants are growing well, thin to 5 cm (two inches) apart and keep an eye on the roots, covering with soil if their shoulders push out of the earth.
You can harvest carrots at any size, but our super-sweet fall and winter crop is my favourite. The seed is sown in late July and the harvest runs from November through March. Winter roots pack extra sweetness as their starches convert to sugar in cold weather.
Enjoy rainbow carrots in a shredded carrot salad with purple or yellow carrots as the star ingredient. Or roast the roots in the oven, savouring the caramelized sweetness.
Grow unusual varieties
GROWING UP, I THOUGHT CARROTS were all orange. In fact, the original wild carrot from which all others are descended was actually white, forked, and spindly. Somewhere along the way, the roots of the wild carrot were transformed into those of the sweet orange carrot gardeners today know and love. That journey is thought to have taken around a thousand years, with the first domesticated carrots probably
being purple or yellow. Orange carrots are the result of relatively modern breeding and likely resulted from crosses with yellow carrots about 400 years ago.
It’s only in recent years that colored carrots have made a comeback, showing off their bold array of colors as well as subtle flavor differences. We plant several beds and cold frames of carrots each spring, as well as in midsummer for a fall and winter harvest. Like most gardeners, we grow a handful of orange varieties, but we also love to experiment with the many white, red, yellow, and purple carrots now found in seed catalogs. Gardeners with less space can buy premixed packets of rainbow carrots, but I like to blend my own by picking my favorite varieties and mixing them together.
Everyone loves to taste test our rainbow carrots, trying to detect how the flavors change from one color to the next. Purple carrots have a sweetness, but they often have a spicy hint of pepper, too. Red carrots taste similar to orange carrots but are slightly less sweet. White and yellow carrots are mild with fewer sugars than orange varieties, and little of the earthiness often associated with carrots.
Colorful, Craveworthy Carrots
‘ATOMIC RED’ (75 days). My kids call these “tomato carrots”—not because of their dazzling coral-red color, but because I’ve told them that the roots contain lycopene, an antioxidant that gives fruits like watermelon and tomatoes their characteristic red hue. ‘Atomic Red’ carrots have become a favorite in our garden and have proven to be reliable and easy to grow. The Imperator-type roots will grow 8 to 10 inches long and have a mildly sweet taste that deepens after frost.
‘PUSA ASITA BLACK’ (75 days). This dramatic purple-black carrot was developed in India, with nutrient-dense roots high in anthocyanins, which give them their dark color. The mildly sweet, earthy flavor is definitely best after a frost, so be patient and plant them for a fall and winter harvest. The roots grow 5 to 6 inches long. Be warned that the color bleeds into cooked dishes; so they’re not good for the soup pot, unless you like purple soup! Enjoy the roots raw—they look amazing when grated with orange carrots for a slaw or salad—or steam, stir-fry, or roast them by themselves. It’s open-pollinated and biennial, so let a few of the roots overwinter for seed collecting the following summer.
‘COSMIC PURPLE’ (70 days). One summer, when my daughter was about 6 years old, she decided that she only wanted to eat purple vegetables. Sigh. We muddled through and discovered that there are actually a lot of purple veggies: tomatoes, potatoes, kohlrabi, eggplant, peas, beans, peppers, cabbage, and her top pick, carrots. ‘Cosmic Purple’ has been growing in our garden ever since. The roots grow to 7 inches long and have a sweet, slightly spicy flavor. The dark purple skin contrasts nicely with the bright orange core, and the thin skin doesn’t need to be peeled; just scrub and eat!
‘PURPLE DRAGON’ (70 days). Purple on the outside, orange on the inside, ‘Purple Dragon’ is a beautiful carrot with slender 6- to 7-inch-long roots. It was bred by noted American breeder Dr. John Navazio. Like many dark-colored carrots, this variety has a pleasing combination of sweet-spicy flavor; it’s also rich in anthocyanins and contains lycopene. To take full advantage of the cool color combination, slice the roots into coins for dipping in hummus or for stir-fries.
‘WHITE SATIN’ (70 days). One of the most popular and widely available white carrots, ‘White Satin’ has smooth, slender roots that grow 7 to 9 inches long and are uniformly white throughout. Their flavor is mild but sweet; we like to roast these with a bit of honey or maple syrup for a tasty treat! These have been very popular with the kids, so I plant them in our winter cold frames, as well as in the spring and summer garden.
‘JAUNE OBTUSE DU DOUBS’ (70 days). This sunny yellow French heirloom will brighten up any carrot patch. The 6- to 8-inch-long roots are thick, sweet, and crisp with a strong carrot flavor. They taste great raw and are particularly appealing in salads or sliced with other veggies for dipping.
‘LUNAR WHITE’ (75 days). When I pulled the first few roots of ‘Lunar White’, my initial thought was that they looked like slender parsnips. They were 7 to 9 inches long with pale white skin and a matching white core. They have a mellow sweetness; we like them raw in salads, or roasted in the oven, which enhances the sweet flavor. When grown under drought conditions, that core can get woody, so be sure to water weekly if there has been no rain.
‘PURPLE HAZE’ (75 days). This All-America Selections winner is among the most popular of the colored carrots, yielding 8- to 10-inch-long deep purple roots with pumpkin orange interiors. They’re sweet, with a welcome crunch. Interestingly, the deepest color will come from roots grown in cool conditions—in the range of 60 to 68°F (15 to 20°C); we have good luck with our spring crop, but it’s our late-autumn harvest that gives us the darkest carrots. The roots will grow up to 12 inches long and have a 1 1/2- to 2-inch shoulder. If boiled or added to soup or stew, the purple color will fade (and give cooked dishes a muddy purple hue), but ‘Purple Haze’ carrots are perfect for raw dishes or stir-fries.
‘YELLOWSTONE’ (72 days). This is a Danvers-type carrot with 1- to 2-inch shoulders and medium-long roots that taper to a sharp point. They’ll get 7 to 8 inches long and have bright yellow skin with pale yellow flesh that is sweet with a mild earthiness. We love them grated with purple, red, and orange varieties, as well as a big handful of Italian parsley, for a dazzling salad.
‘RED SAMURAI’ (70 days). A Japanese variety, ‘Red Samurai’ yields long, slender roots with smooth, watermelon red skin and reddish pink flesh. They will usually grow 11 inches long, but in good soil, they can reach lengths of up to 14 inches. The unusual color is retained during cooking, but you can also eat them raw, enjoying their sweet-peppery flavor.
Growing Great Carrots
- Carrots need a sunny site and deep, weed-free, stone-free soil with a fine, friable surface. If that doesn’t sound like your garden, consider building a raised bed. Dig in 2 to 3 inches of compost. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, as excessive nitrogen will cause roots to fork or become hairy.
- Sow seed 2 to 3 weeks before the last expected spring frost. Carrot seed is small, so take your time sowing to reduce the need to thin later on. Sow in shallow trenches, spacing the seeds every 1/2 inch and rows 8 to 10 inches apart. Cover lightly with soil (about 1/2 inch) and water the bed. Keep the soil evenly moist until the seeds germinate, which will take 1 to 2 weeks.
- Once the seedlings are growing well, thin them to 2 inches apart. As the carrots grow, continue to thin by pulling every second root. This allows the remaining ones to thicken up. Don’t forget to eat the thinnings!
- Irrigate weekly with a deep soaking to encourage steady growth, and pull any weeds that appear.
- Succession plant by sowing fresh seed every 3 to 4 weeks. Our last planting is our winter crop, which we sow the first week of August—10 to 12 weeks before the first expected fall frost.
- Keep an eye out for pests like the carrot rust fly and slugs, which are drawn to carrot seedlings like a magnet. I use diatomaceous earth to discourage the slugs. Deer also love carrot greens, so protect your crop with a fence or barrier.
- Mulch the soil with shredded leaves or straw to hold in soil moisture but also to prevent green shoulders.
- To avoid breaking off carrot tops and leaving the roots stuck in the ground at harvest time, use a garden fork to loosen the earth before you start tugging on the tops.
- Wait to harvest autumn carrots until cold weather has turned the starches in the roots to sugar. (Our kids call them “garden candy!”)
- The tops of your homegrown carrots can be eaten raw or cooked. They have a bitter flavor, so we blanch them to temper the bitterness, and then stir-fry with a bit of garlic and olive oil.
Excerpted from Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix, © by Niki Jabbour, 2017. Photography by © Philip Ficks. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.
Bestselling author Niki Jabbour invites you to shake up your vegetable garden with an intriguing array of 224 plants from around the world. In her book, Jabbour encourages you to start with what you know and then expand your repertoire by trying related plants, many of which are delicacies in other cultures. Jabbour presents detailed growing information for each plant, along with fun facts and plant history. Be prepared to have your mind expanded and catch Jabbour’s contagious enthusiasm for experimentation and fun in the garden.
Niki is the award-winning author of Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener and Groundbreaking Food Gardens. Her work is found in Fine Gardening, Garden Making, Birds & Blooms, Horticulture and other publications, and she speaks widely on food gardening at events and shows across North America. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is online at nikijabbour.com.