The Carrot Experiment
Do you ever think about seeds, and where they come from? I don’t mean who is growing them for you, I mean the type of flower they produce, the amount of time it takes for the plant to mature to flowering stage, and so forth.
Most home gardeners have seen lettuce and asian greens bolt and go to seed. Tomatoes, zucchini, beans. Yes, these crops, too, by their very nature we see through to seed maturity simply by virtue of growing them. These are fast-maturing plant varieties. Broccoli, too, is renowned for going for it if you let it mature even a few weeks longer than ideal, despite it being a biennial.
Last year, amid our bumper carrot crop it dawned on me: I don’t really know where those carrot seeds come from and I really want to know first-hand. Not that I don’t understand the biology of it all, just that I haven’t seen a carrot ever flower in our garden. This rather abruptly became a gardening bucket list item, and I just couldn't stop thinking about it.
Carrots are a biennial in the Umbelliferae family. They have umbelliferous flower clusters, which are large open clusters of white flowers that droop like an umbrella, hence its botanical family’s namesake. If you think this flower reminds you of Queen Anne’s Lace, well, I’m here to break the news to you: a carrot is the fine result of man’s manipulation with that plant.
If these seeds get cross-pollinated with Queen Anne’s Lace, they will revert back to their parent behavior and produce a white, less beefy and much less tasty root, not the colorful burst of sweetness we all prize. We don’t have any Queen Anne’s Lace on our property, but there may be some around the area; only way to find out how we did here is to grow them out next year.
We have a lot of pollen available for the bees and pollinators in and around our garden, and so my hope is that between asparagus sips and raspberry kisses, the pollinators meandered here for a drink. And that they weren’t in far off lands kissing someone's Queen Anne's Lace, because we do supply enough nectar to keep the bees in our garden all summer long. I digress.
I am not a huge seed saver. We grow some heirloom, open pollinated veggies as well as some hybrid varieties. I also strongly believe in supporting small, independent seed companies and their hard work breeding and diversifying what is commercially available to the home gardener. So, I am not doing this to usurp those awesome horticulturists. It is merely for the curiosity of it all. We are insatiably curious scientists here at Seed to Fork.
How to Grow Carrots to Seed
This is a complicated thing for a northern gardener. The carrot, like all other biennials, require a cold vernalization, a period of cold - but not freezing-your-butt-off-midwest-cold - between growing to harvestable size and being ready to flower. In warmer places, I imagine, but don’t know for certain, that this can all happen within one calendar year or possibly even one growing season. I am thinking of those idyllic pockets in central California where it’s never too hot and never too cold, the strawberry, garlic, and lettuce capital. In Minnesota, however, you need to take some extraneous measures to make this magic happen.
In northern climates it is recommended that you cut the tops off the carrots, bury them in some wood shavings or other mulch, store in a cooler, and leave in a cold, but not freezing, place during the winter months. Then, in early Spring, you wake them up by cutting the bottom third off the root and burying all but the top 1/2” or so into soil. It will wake up and sprout. So amazing!
Fast forward to this past long and snowy Winter when this was still a concept of my lively and wild garden daydreaming. Then, in very late winter, later than I’ve ever seen local storage carrots - sometime in March - our local coop was selling carrots from my favorite Iowa organic farm that does carrots so well. Of course I bought a 5 lb. bag because our homegrown carrots were long gone.
Lo and behold in this bag were a few carrots with sprouted tops. And that was it, folks. It was my calling. I reviewed the instructional websites I had read from Mother Earth News and Seed Savers Exchange and I was off, gathering 1 gallon pots and mixing compost and garden soil for a nice light medium. We had our LED grow light on in the basement, and I knew I could tuck these under that light, so I placed one carrot into each pot, watered them well, and let them be.
It wasn’t long before the chlorotic foliage turned a lush green. After that, it was game on. They kept growing and I eventually moved them outside of the LED light and just next to a south-facing window where it was a little cooler to help harden them off.
Now I wasn’t planning on having this be a centerpiece of our garden, so I amended the native soils over in a small spot next to our fruit orchard on the northern side of the garden, threw them in the ground, and went back to me frenetic spring prep work. They were, needless to say, out of the way and more or less neglected as I weeded and edged those late April and May days away.
We had some good soaking rains and when we were working back in that corner of the garden, it did get a splash of water. So it wasn’t completely left to survive without some support from us. But overall, benign neglect seems to have worked. We have over a dozen flower heads open right now. That is going to be a lot of carrot seeds!
I am hoping to share them with friends near and far. We won’t know what kind of a carrot it produces until we grow them out next year. It’s kind of a fun surprise, and I am loving this little side project in the garden.
This has sparked a bug in me to do this again with a different crop. What about a kohlrabi or cabbage seed? I’ve not seen either flower, and it does have me thinking either would be a fun one to grow out to maturity. Would a cabbage break open and send a flower stalk up through the cabbage? I could see a kohlrabi doing this as it already sends leaves up from its fruiting body. We are growing an open pollinated kohlrabi this year, so maybe I should leave one in the ground all summer and fall and see what it does. Compared to the hybrids we grow, it is much slower to bulb while putting on a lot more foliage.
I bet if I neglect it for a few months, it will dazzle the bees and me with its inflorescence.