We had a lot of fun with carrots this year enjoying the rewards of harvesting carrots from the seeds we had saved from last years seed crop. We planted rows in early spring and then again in mid summer. The colorful carrot project began three growing seasons ago. We planted a mix of seed of colorful carrots from several commercial seed sources: purples and reds, yellows and whites. We included in our mix the sweetest early maturing orange carrots we could find. The goal was to produce early maturing (50 day) carrots that were sweet and perfect as a fresh snack in a variety of colors. Carrots that a kid could love.
Our carrot bed was planted late that first year and the carrots were rather small when the ground froze and they overwintered in place. In spite of a harsh winter, the carrots survived in the ground and even though the roots were small, the bed was a mass of flowers in white and shades of lavender in summer of the second year; a beautiful sight. Those carrots produced a large quantity of seed by the end of the second year. This year we finally ate the carrots of our own seed production. It seemed that each carrot we pulled was a new surprise. This was especially enjoyed by my niece; Ocean, a third grader and my nephew Skye who is post high school. They both enjoyed discovering new colors, color combinations and flavors as they pulled the carrots out of the ground and munched on them. We had plenty to evaluate and pass out for taste testing and also plenty for replanting for another seed crop next year. This time we dug out the carrots selecting only the fastest growing ones with the best formed roots to replant. We didn't have any problem getting a full range of colors including some that were new and unexpected. We decided to replant in blocks of colors to better maintain some of the colors as they continue to cross pollinate next year. We also planted some exceptionally sweet young orange "finger-type" carrots sold locally by a specialty produce shop in an adjacent block to continue to add the genetics of sweetness and quick growth to our mix. Planting fresh carrot roots for a seed crop is quite easy. We remove most of the tops leaving just an inch above the root crown so that the roots can adjust to transplant shock and not lose too much water by transpiration. They are planted in a prepared bed so that the inch of green is sticking out of the ground. We used t-tape irrigation and 100% of our replanted carrots survived the mid summer replanting. Now in November; they are lush and green and will hopefully winter over well in the field.
Save Your Own Carrot Seed
Carrots are one of those biennial seed crops that seed savers often neglect. They shouldn't though; carrots from the first year will often survive in the frozen ground through the winter with little or no protection just like Queen Anne's Lace or Wild Carrot does. The following year the plants send up their flower stalks and produce seeds. They take a while before they dry on the stalk folding their seeds up into a kind of basket formed from the flower called an umbel. On a sunny day cut and transfer the folded umbels containing the brown, dry seed to an open paper bag, it will take a few weeks of further drying before they can be thrashed and screened to produce clean seed because they are quiteprickly and even resinous and tend to clump together.
Like carrot seed crops, we find that transferring the dry stalks of lettuce seed and branches laden with radish pods to large paper grocery bags for additional drying in a cool area for weeks or months makes it easier to produce clean seed. Seed drops more readily from the lettuce stalks and radish pods crumble easier to release the seed. Your seed may not look as clean as Burpee's seeds but your germination will be just as high if you keep the seed dry and cool. What you won't get from Burpee though is the satisfaction of producing your own unique varieties.
Memories of Oxheart
Speaking of Burpee, the first carrots I ever harvested in the garden were the Oxheart carrots from Burpee Seeds in the mid 1950's. I grew a row of them with my sister. They were unique; by fall they were over four inches wide at the crown and six or seven inches long, tapering like a top. These stump rooted marvels probably weighed a pound each but were strikingly beautiful. This year I have a small row of Oxheart Carrots in another garden. They seem to be an inferior variation of the Oxheart Carrot that I knew, the variety that was in commerce half a century ago. Today's oxheart seem like they have been crossed with some other type of carrot and look a little like the Thumbilina carrot on steroids. Burpee devoted quite a bit of attention to variety maintenance with a staff that produced seed in house on two Burpee farms and also oversaw contract growers. Maintaining the quality characteristics of a variety like "Oxheart" carrot is not easy to do without disciplined selection and the investment in a trained staff to rogue out off types in a field. If it is no longer economical to market the seed, it no longer gets much attention from the grower.
In the 50's and 60's Oxheart was a terrific storage carrot but many families were giving up their root cellars and no longer storing their winter vegetables. Demand for the oxheart variety dropped as other varieties suited to all-year production such as Imperator and Nantes for fresh harvest and cello bag sales at the supermarket and chantenay types that went to the processed carrots increased in popularity among commercial carrot producers. What happened during the time that oxheart was off the market has happened to other varieties of other vegetables. My recent plantings of the Lutz beet, a similar mammoth root vegetable favored in the days of the root cellar showed similar quality problems. Seed from two separate retail seed sources planted this year produced two very different Lutz beets. The one that most resembled the real Lutz I remember from 30 years ago unfortunately had issues with vigor and inconsistency. Why do I ramble about this? If Oxheart Carrot and Lutz Beet as they once existed become no more will the global food system crash. Apparently not. Do I have a right to complain. Probably not.
I guess that my point is that in spite of my personal interest in garden diversity and mixing the gene pool, losing a great old variety is like losing a friend. Oxheart Carrot and Lutz Beet are two of hundreds of wonderful old varieties that have fallen out of favor. Seed companies who have trained staff to maintain "true to type" characteristics may feel some obligation to keep those older classics alive and well but you probably can't make much money off those "fallen" cultivars. So where is the incentive? Individual seed savers, commercial seed producers, government agencies and seed banks all have to play a role in preserving our seed heritage. While individually, they all have their limitations; collectively, we hope that there will always be some seed; somewhere, to resurrect an old friend.