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Organic Gardening with Sue Robishaw

Carrots ~ Common, Crunchy, Comfortable
mix of varieties of carrots - roots

Four decades of Growing Good Food in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
~ ~ ~
Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thoughts

Carrots are truly an all-around food. They are an easy snack fresh, welcomed in a wide variety of cooked dishes, comfortable in salads, and colorful wherever they go. Thankfully, they are also easy to grow. Mostly we eat them fresh, from the garden or from the root cellar, raw or cooked. But I've also dried and canned them. They are one of the Major Vegetables in my garden. There is hardly a time when at least one meal in the day doesn't include a carrot. 

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July 17, 2019 -- Carrot Seed Adventures

Over the many years I’ve tried almost all the open-pollinated carrots available and none have compared to Kinko 6" (a chantenay type), which I started growing in 1980. It is sweet when young, still very good flavor when old, good in storage, good over-wintered, nicely shaped - a great all-round carrot. All this makes it rather frustrating that it was dropped from the industry - the seed is no longer available. For years I hadn’t noticed because I’ve grown my own seed several times, keeping my own line alive and planting that. But my latest seed supply was running low so I started searching to buy new seed. But there was none to be found.

So why not just grow my own again? In a way, carrot seed is one of the easier seeds to grow. It's biennial so one has to overwinter the roots, either inside storage or outside in the ground. Both can work, depending on the weather. But there is one even bigger challenge -- Queen Anne’s Lace, which we have in abundance. QAL is the wild version of our garden carrot. One can eat the roots but they tend to be thinner and longer, rougher, harder to dig, white (which isn't a problem) and quite strong flavored raw though they might be sweeter cooked. Our garden carrots have been selected and bred over the years to be, generally, what we prefer. The problem in growing seed is that the garden carrot will cross readily with QAL resulting in future roots that tend to be strong toward the wild type.

When I grew my seed in the past I did my best to mow, cut, pick, pluck the QAL flowers in our surrounding fields to avoid crossing. This was no small endeavor, was fussy and time consuming, futile in a way but I was moderately successful. I did my best and am OK with my crop of not pure Kinko’s, with occasional white roots (which though rougher are sweeter and more tender cooked than ‘regular’ carrots). But we have even more QAL now and I didn't want to go through that again, nor do I want even more wild genes in my tame seed.

The solution is to keep the pollinators from visiting and carrying pollen from the wild flowers to the tame flowers when they open. But, carrot flowers being as they are, do need to be cross pollinated -- someone has to carry pollen from one flower to a different plant's flower, easily handled by the pollinators, clumsily handled by humans, at least this human. But I figured I could do that. Normally I would choose my best roots in the fall, replant them in the garden to grow the next year. But this time I didn't decide to do this till I was digging the very last of the overwintered roots this spring, and many of them had been a bit frozen on the tops and so, though good for eating wouldn't grow a seed stalk. But I managed to get seven roots to grow and flower and, like Queen Anne's lace, thankfully they do that readily.

carrot flowers baggedCarrot/QAL flowers are apparently well loved by a wide variety of and sizes of pollinators. Keeping them off the flowers is no small task. I made 8"x8" bags out of a light-weight fabric (maybe curtain sheers) found at the thrift store. Originally I thought I'd just uncover them all, taking my time, romantically and patiently hand cross pollinating the flowers with a soft artist paint brush, then gently rebagging them. I didn't figure it would be too hard to shoo off pollinators. Hah!! I had no idea there were so many different insects of all sizes intent with firm purpose on getting to those cute little carrot flowers. Many were waiting on the bags, others zeroed in the moment that bag iwa untied, some manage to get inside the bags. So in reality I quickly untied two or three bags at a time, pulled the bags off, quickly ran the brush around back and forth, flower to flower, around and back again, trying not to be too clumsy and damage anything, quickly replace and tie them back on, all the while shooing off all comers and reminding myself that a bit of crossing isn't going to hurt, but hoping if the pollinators have just come from another flower it is a nearby carrot not a distant QAL. I did go around inside the fence pulling off all the QAL flowers I could find to aid this hope, but there are plenty more outside the fence. carrot flower bag

To help keep track of what flowers I'm cross pollinating I came up with the solution of sewing every two or three bags with a different color thread and just unbagging each color at a time. Almost all the bagged flowers are open now and I expect I'll be doing this every morning for another two or three weeks, until they (hopefully) start becoming seed heads. It is getting easier and rather fun in its own way. Since I only have 7 plants this year I'll do it again next year with more plants for greater genetic diversity in my seed. I'll know soon enough if I've been a successful pollinator -- when the flowers do or don't set seed . But I won't know until I plant the seed next year if I managed to keep more QAL genes out of my home grown seed. Another one of those little garden adventures I lay out for myself.  

August 1 -- No new flowers so I'm done pollinating. One plant broke off in the wind, another was too late so I ended up with only 8 flowers from 5 plants. Only 3 of those flowers pollinated (set seed). but I harvested my little stash of valuable seed and look forward to seeing how they do next year.

But it was enough of a success that I decided to do it again, with more plants. When I harvested carrots in the fall I chose 20 good roots to store in damp sand in the root cellar, to be replanted in the spring. I also picked out another 20 and replanted those in the garden, one row along the north side of the plot, to overwinter, well mulched.

2020 -- I planted my precious carrot seed along with the older seed and it grew just fine, producing similar carrots. Success!

In early April I replanted the root cellar stored roots, one row on the south side of the same plot that the overwintered roots were planted, putting a stake by each plant to tie the seed stalks to. The overwintered roots already had stakes; I just had to wait for them to grow. Unfortunately, only two of them grew, one at each end, and one of those too late to produce good seed heads. So I had one. The others? I'm not sure, either frozen or eaten by voles.

Of the replanted roots only 3 grew, those in the middle of the row. Sigh... But I carefully bagged what flowers I had when the were big enough, and started the pollination routine. At some point I realized something else was going on -- there were little worms in the seed heads, inside the bags, and I learned about a fairly new comer in the local insect pest world - Purple Carrot Seed Moth. Another sigh... In the end I harvest a small amount of good seed from one nice seed head, a small amount from a small seed head, plus for a test seed from an early flowering good but not-bagged seed head. I also decided to go back to trialing available varieties.

 2021 -- Planting last years saved seed was the extent of my seed trails this year. The roots from the large seed head were nice, similar to my regular crop sown at the same time. From the small seed head only a few grew and they were OK, not as good as the large. The not-bagged seed roots were, not surprising, definitely crossed with Queen Anne's Lace and though edible, not worth it if one had regular carrots, which I did.

So is this the end of my carrot seed endeavor? Not likely. While I didn't select and re-plant roots in the fall, I did, as I usually do, leave a plot of carrots, heavily mulched, to dig in the winter and spring. If all goes well and there are good roots in the spring I will leave a few rows to grow and set seed. But this year I will bag the flower heads early, as soon as possible and hopefully before the Purple Carrot Moth arrives. I'm also hoping someone else (of the insect or bird variety) arrives when that moth shows up to do their own version of harvesting.

carrots garden Jan 21    Carrots! - January 21, 2018

Above freezing, no wind, no precipitation -- a perfect day to take care of some mid-winter outdoor chores. We were both in and out all day enjoying just being outside. The carrots in the root cellar were almost out so the timing was good to resupply. It's a bit messy but fun to be digging in the dirt mid winter.  Under the snow the mulch and down a few inches was frozen, especially at the edge of the plot, but the carrots were fine - fresh and crisp. The mulch and snow had done their job. There are more carrots still in the ground to be dug in the spring. So I hope we have good snow cover all winter this year. Meantime, we'll enjoy the "new crop" freshly dug.  

Copyright Susan Robishaw

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