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Garden Q&A: Carrots need loose soil

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Jessica Walliser
'Purple Dragon' and 'Napoli' carrots

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Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Q: Last year we grew carrots for the first time. They tasted great, but the roots were malformed. They were gnarled and some of them divided and grew two or three “legs,” which made it very hard to peel them. Did we do something wrong?

A: Carrots originated some 5,000 years ago in Middle Asia. These precursors to modern carrots were white, purple, red, yellow or green and had relatively tough, small roots. Today's orange carrot came to be in Holland around the 16th century when breeders focused on promoting the orange, beta-carotene rich color.

Carrots are quite easy to grow, if you keep a few important things in mind. First and foremost, it is essential that the soil be loosened before planting the seeds. If there are clumps of clay or rocks in the planting area, the roots will fork into “legs” or become otherwise malformed. Till or turn over the soil with a spade and work lots of organic matter — like aged manure, compost, or leaf mold — into the soil.

Carrot seeds should be sown directly into the garden soil anytime from late March all the way through late July. Carrots are quite tolerant of cold and hot weather, and in my garden, I sow a new batch of seeds every few weeks to keep the harvests rolling in all season long.

Be aware that carrots take quite a long time to germinate. Don't be surprised if two or three weeks pass before you see the spindly seedlings break through the soil. Once they are in inch tall, thin them so the remaining seedlings are 2 inches apart. If the roots are too crowded, malformed roots and forking also can occur.

There are literally hundreds of carrot varieties available to growers. Many of them are orange, but you'll also find yellow-, red-, white- and purple-rooted varieties (“Yellowstone,” “Cosmic Red,” “Snow White” and “Purple Dragon” to name just a few).

Each color of root contains different nutrients, so growing a variety of colors not only makes for a beautiful dinner, it's healthier.

Even orange carrot selections greatly vary in size and shape. From the small, round “Tonda di Parigi,” a 19th-century Parisian variety, to the baby-type “Little Finger” and the early maturing “Napoli” hybrid, there is a huge diversity of choices on today's seed market.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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