Choosing which variety of carrot to grow is an important decision for the home gardener. Carrots are a staple in many gardens, and it is important to grow the right variety to match your garden and your culinary cravings.
While there are countless carrot varieties available, most of them are divided into 5 main categories: Nantes, Imperator, Chantenay, Danvers, and Ball/Mini carrots. There are also many heirloom, or heritage, varieties that have been around for hundreds of years that are still remarkable additions to the modern garden. Every carrot has unique characteristics and each is suited to different growing conditions.
With so many carrots to choose from, it is often difficult to decide which one to grow in your garden. Let’s look at the different types of carrots, plus a few notable varieties that do well in the home garden.
The 5 Types of Carrots
All of the modern carrots we enjoy today are descended from the wild carrot native to the Middle East. The early history of the carrot is slightly obscured, with some early records possibly indicating its medicinal and culinary use in ancient Egypt and the Persian Empire. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used these not-so-great-tasting varieties medicinally, and the carrots we enjoy today spread from what is now Afghanistan to the Orient and Europe where they were cultivated into sweet tasting roots in the 13th century.
Carrot seeds that your buy are either open pollinated (OP) or a hybrid (F1). Open pollinated seeds are the result of pollen being shared between two similar carrots, which produce the same variety. Many carrots are hybrids meaning one carrot is pollinated with another variety to produce a new variety with a desired characteristic (note that hybridization is not the same as the dangerous practice of genetic modification).
Careful cultivation has led to the development of 5 main cultivars, each with its own distinct shape and characteristics:
- Ball or miniature
Nantes carrots originate from the coast of France and have been popular for over 200 years. They are sweet, crunchy, with a very cylindrical medium-length taproot and a blunt end. Nantes grow in a variety of conditions and are very popular with home gardeners and market gardens, though some of the varieties can be a bit finicky to grow.
My first experience with Nantes was at a farmer’s market, where a vendor I worked beside sold some of the most delicious carrots you could buy. They actually imported their seeds from France, but most local seed suppliers sell very good quality seeds. There are over 40 varieties of Nantes carrots, but here are some of the most popular.
Imperator carrots grow much bigger than most other varieties. Also known as the shipping carrot, they are the most common type grown by commercial operations and this is what you usually find on the grocery store shelves. In the home garden, they are very large and sweet and grow best in deep, loose soil. The tops are fast growing which can help you locate them early for easy weeding, and they can be bunched nicely for good aesthetics.
Imperators are excellent storage carrots and can be eaten fresh, boiled, steamed, or roasted.
Chantenay are top heavy, thick carrots that are short and broad which makes them ideal for growing in heavy or shallow soil. They grow vigorously and should be harvested on time or they can become woody. Despite this, these carrots are sweet with a good flavour which store very well and are also excellent for canning.
These carrots were developed in Danvers, Massachusetts in the 1800s, hence the name. They usually have a nice tapered shape with rich colour and good flavour. They grow well in many different conditions and are generally easy to grow and care for.
5. Ball or Miniature
Baby carrots that you buy in the store and not real mini-carrots. They are actually pieces of large carrots that are machine shaved to a perfect little shape. While this is not something we can grow in our garden, nature (and careful breeding) has even better tiny carrots for us. These tiny carrots are ideal for growing in containers or in heavy shallow soil that is unsuitable for full-sized carrots.
While all carrots can be picked when they are small, here are a few varieties that are perfect for the bitesize snack.