Carrots are a great crop to grow in your polytunnel. They are a familiar favourite in many households. But many gardeners are surprised to discover just how many different carrots you can grow. Carrots do not just come in the standard orange. They come in a wide range of colours, lengths and sizes. Growing heritage carrot varieties will allow you to make the most of this diversity.
Why Grow Heritage Carrot Varieties?
The diversity in shape, size and colour is not the only reason to grow heritage carrot varieties. There are a number of other reasons why you should consider growing them in your polytunnel, or elsewhere in your garden.
One reason to grow older, heritage varieties rather than choosing the standard modern hybrid carrots is that they often have far better flavour. Hybrid carrots have been bred to provide a range of benefits – such as larger roots, or a better resistance to problems like carrot fly. But unfortunately, in the process, much of the flavour has been bred out.
Much of the nutrition has often been bred out too. Old heritage carrot varieties are often much higher in healthy vitamins and other nutrients than more modern strains.
Another reason why you should consider growing heritage carrots is that they will come true from seed. So, as long as cross-pollination has not occurred with other carrots or wild carrot species, you can collect the seeds and use them to grow the next generation of carrots in your garden.
(If you do want to collect carrot seeds, it is important to remember that carrots are biennial. Carrots will have to be in the soil or stored over winter to go to seed in their second year.)
Heritage Carrot Varieties To Consider
You might not be aware that orange carrots are a relatively modern invention. Carrots naturally come in a range of different colours. Where carrots originated in the Middle East they were purple, and those in Europe were originally yellow and white.
Some historians say that orange carrots were developed by the Dutch in the 17th Century as a tribute to William of Orange, who led their struggle for Independence. While this may be apocryphal, it is certainly true that they were widely cultivated at this time for political reasons, and took on political significance. There is some evidence that orange carrots existed before this time, but only six centuries after domestication do orange roots appear consistently in the historical records. It is believed by some historians that they appeared in Spain and Germany in the 15th or 16th Century.
Intriguingly, the colour stuck, and a thousand years of multi-coloured carrots gave way to the homogeneity we generally see in commercially grown carrots today. It is only in recent years that interest in older and different coloured carrots has seen a resurgence.
There are a wide range of different heritage carrots to choose from. Of course, the variety is one of the appeals of growing them. Many gardeners will simply pick up a ‘Rainbow Mix’ selection of seeds to enjoy the variety. But if you want to pick out individual varieties, then here are five good non-orange options to consider.
Non-orange Carrot Varieties
- Dragon Purple: This a beautiful, small purple carrot. It looks exactly as carrots would have looked when they were first domesticated in the Middle East thousands of years ago. The purple flesh on the outside gives way to a deep orange colour on the inside. This variety is pretty sweet, and also has a reasonably strong ‘carrot’ flavour.
- Purple Sun: Purple sun is, as the name suggests, another purple carrot. But this is an example of the longer type roots. It is more like the typical carrots you find in the supermarket – but purple. It has a good sweet taste and remains purple even when you cook it. Cosmic purple is another popular purple alternative.
- Jaune Obtuse de Doubs: This old fashioned, traditional French variety is a great example of a yellow carrot. It has blunt tips that make it easy to dig up without snapping. The colour is vibrant and the taste is good too. It has a strong but sweet flavour that makes it great for use in salads, or cooked. They stay yellow, even when cooked.
- Yellowstone: This is another of the great yellow heritage carrot varieties, with canary yellow roots. The long roots are vibrant and cheery, and also hold their colour through the cooking process. These are also delightfully sweet and yet still taste carroty.
- Blanche a Collet Vert: This is a very pretty example of a white and green carrot that looks and tastes lovely raw or cooked. The roots are mostly white, with an inch or two of green near the top. This traditional variety is originally from Belgium. It is long and pointy, and is less attractive to carrot fly, so could be a good choice where they are a problem.
But if you do still fancy growing an orange carrot, then here are five more interesting and useful heritage carrot varieties to consider.
Orange Carrot Varieties
- Paris Market: If you have heavier, clay soil, you may struggle to grow carrots successfully. Small, round carrots could be the perfect solution. They will tend to do well even in clumpy clay soil. Paris Market is a heritage carrot variety that forms small, round carrots, which form spherical roots of around 1-2 inches in diameter. Though small, they are sweet and flavoursome, and also do well in pots.
- Touchon: This heirloom variety dates all the way back to the late 1700s. It comes from France and is still a favourite with many growers – even after over 200 years. The orange roots are fairly long, don’t taper much and are blunt on the ends. These carrots are great to eat fresh. They have an excellent sweet flavour and a fine, crisp texture. But they also store well, so are great for lifting in autumn and using up slowly over the winter months.
- Early Nantes: Early Nantes is a well known heritage variety that dates back to 1927, and it deserves to be well known. This is another orange carrot which is great for early and successional crops. Its roots reach an average length of around 15cm in the right conditions, so it is great for sandy, light soils. These roots are relatively uniform, blunt ended and cylindrical, and are great for eating raw, or freezing.
- Chantenay: This heritage variety from 1932 is a deservedly well known option. It produces small stump-rooted carrots with orange-red flesh and a crisp texture. Since the roots are short and blunt, this is another great choice for heavier clay soils, or soils that are rather stoney. They have a good, sweet flavour and taste the way carrots used to taste.
- Giant Red: Giant red is actually orange rather than red. But the roots really live up to the ‘giant’ part of the name. If you want big carrots, then this could be a great option to choose. This Italian heritage variety has amazing vigour and flavour. The roots are sweet without any bitterness, and have a strong flavour and a small core. It also grows quickly, so it is good for early sowings, as well as maincrop sowings. It can also be stored successfully over winter.
Once you start discovering and growing all the many heritage carrot varieties out there, you may well become addicted to finding new ones to try. Collect the seed and you can also contribute to keeping rarer varieties alive.
Do you grow heritage carrot varieties in your polytunnel garden? Which varieties have you grown, and which would you recommend? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.