05 Seductive Vegetables for your Garden
Discover the origins and plant lore of these intriguing edibles and learn how to make them thrive in your garden
1/ Carrot ‘Thumbelina’ Daucus carota sativus
In seventeenth-century England, the Elizabethan and Stuart fashion for decorating hats, sleeves, and dresses with flowers, fruits, feathers, and the like was amusingly extended to include the feathery tops of carrots, the lacy green foliage being thought especially fetching when “coloring up” in the fall.
That sweet, crisp, bright orange “Bugs Bunny” of a vegetable we now identify as the carrot is a distant cry from the small, tough, pale-fleshed, and bitter persona of its original wild ancestor. Countless millennia old, the members of the Daucus carota family were not always the edible darlings they have become, the Greek naturalist and historian Pliny reporting in the first century A.D.: “There is one kind of wild Pastinaca which grows spontaneously . . . . Another kind is grown either from the root transplanted or else from seed, the ground being dug to a very considerable depth for the purpose. It begins to be fit for eating at the end of the year, but it is still better at the end of two; even then, however, it preserves its strong pungent flavor, which it is found impossible to get rid of.”
History of the Carrot
The truth was, the ancient Greeks and Romans rarely ate carrots, using them instead for medicinal purposes ranging from a poultice for ulcerous sores to prescription as both a stomach tonic and eyesight enhancer. Dioscorides, the botanist to Nero, also writing in the first century A.D., stated: “Ye root ye thickness of a finger, a span long, sweet-smelling . . . is good for . . . ye bitings and strokes of venomous beasts . . . and . . . the leaves being beaten small with honey, and laid on, doth cleanse rapidly spreading destructive ulceration of soft tissues.” Carrots were also broadly popular as a love potion with the ancient Greeks, who called the unprepossessing root Philon or Philtron from the Greek word philo, meaning “loving.” As well, Greek legend maintains that the soldiers who hid in the famous Trojan Horse consumed lavish quantities of raw carrot in order to render their bowels inactive during confinement. What we know for certain is that the important antioxidants carrots contain can protect against heart disease, cancer, and cataracts, inhibit tumor growth, and even retard premature aging.
Plant this Carrot
The carrot I recommend here is the curvaceous ‘Thumbelina,’ not only for its pretty, novel shape but also for its fairly unique ability to do well in heavy, rocky soil where other longer carrot varieties would certainly give up the ghost. A round Paris Market-type, ‘Thumbelina’ is a sprightly, bright orange orb sprouting a dainty root at the nether end and a froth of feathery greenery at the other. Although usually harvested at the 1⁄2-inch size, they will retain their crisp edibility up to the size of a golf ball and larger and are also notable for their sweet taste, crisp texture, and pleasing smoothness of skin, which is lovely as their shape makes them rather tiresome to peel. For all these sterling attributes, ‘Thumbelina’ was warmly received as an All-American Selections Winner in 1992.
All carrots need plenty of sun, although, as I’ve mentioned, ‘Thumbelina’ is blissfully free of the sandy, deep soil requirements of most. To start your carrot patch, either scatter seeds in a row and thin them out or plant them at the outset at 1- to 2-inch intervals in early spring, covering the seed with finely sifted compost or sand. These pretty, ginger-colored globes are ready to harvest about 65 days from sowing and are sublimely tossed with chopped garlic and rosemary, then roasted with some fingerling potatoes around a fowl for a nourishing fall meal. (Click Next)