One of the greatest delights of the home gardener is growing carrots that can’t be found in supermarkets anywhere. Forget type—how about taste? Home grown carrots are bursting with flavors and sweetness that you can’t get anywhere else. From Nantes carrots that are fast and easy to grow, to Chantenay carrots that become sweeter as the soil cools in the fall, to varieties in between, there is an heirloom carrot that is perfectly suited to your climate and need.
If you want to harvest long, straight carrot roots, you’re going to need to have loose, even soil without rocks or clods. Double-till your soil, and if you have heavy, clay dirt, add plenty of compost. Use about 2 pounds of compost for every square foot and dig it in as deeply as you can.
When to Plant
Carrots are a cool weather crop, so begin sowing your seeds about 3 weeks before your last spring frost date. Sow until your average daily temperature exceeds 85 degrees F. Sow again about 6 weeks before your first fall frost. If you live in zones 8 or warmer, you can sow throughout fall or winter.
How to Plant
Water your planting area thoroughly. Dig a shallow furrow, about a 1/4 inch deep, and plant your seeds about a 1/2 inch apart with 6 to 12 inches between rows. It can be difficult to evenly space small seeds, so you might want to try doing so with a hand-held mini seeder. Because carrots germinate so slowly, it’s very easy for them to wash away. You’ll want to cover your furrows with compost or vermiculite to avoid crusting (hardening of the top layer of dirt over the seeds). You might want to sow some radish seeds with your carrot seeds as well. Radishes are fast growing, and will mark your furrows until the carrot seedlings start to emerge from the dirt.
In one to two weeks, your seeds will germinate. Thin your seedlings out once or twice during their growth. When they reach 2 inches high, thin them about 1 to 2 inches apart. Don’t be faint-hearted with your thinning. Carrots will not produce good roots if they’re overcrowded.
For the smaller, chunkier varieties, leave your plants 3 to 4 inches apart. Reseed any gaps in poorly germinated areas so that weeds don’t become a problem.
Carrots should be watered daily. If there’s no rain, hand water gently or run a trench between rows and water there. You can reduce watering once the carrots are established, but don’t let the soil dry out completely. If it does, don’t overcompensate by overwatering. Water moderately for several days versus one big soaking so that there’s less risk of the roots splitting and ruining the flavor of your harvest.
Weed your carrots regularly and mulch completely with hay or shredded leaves once the last thinning has been done. Bring in the mulch so that it blocks the sunlight to the base of the stem and the top of the root. This will also help the carrots from turning green where the foliage and root converge.
About when you expect your carrots to be ready for harvesting, begin checking the size of the carrot root daily by poking around the dirt with your finger. Either pull individual carrots out by hand when they reach the desired size, or harvest several at once by inserting a garden fork into the dirt next to the row and loosening them.
Carrots can be stored over the winter in a root cellar or you can store a fall crop in a garden bed that is well drained with a thick layer of insulating mulch. Carrots will rot in cold, wet soil so don’t cover your crop after a rain. When temperatures drop to 20 degrees F, cover with 1 foot of straw or leaves. Weight down a plastic sheet spread over the mulch and cover all of the mulch. Mulch loses its insulating value when it gets wet, and any visible mulch will be an attractant to rodents. Leave bare ground all around the perimeter of your plastic sheeting.
One of the issues you may experience with your carrots is split roots which can be caused from a variety of factors, including heat, dry soil, and rapid moisture changes. Too much nitrogen fertilizer can also cause root splitting.
Nitrogen overload will also cause small roots with large tops, as well has hairy roots. Carrots are not heavy feeders, so go easy on the fertilizers. A bitter taste is also a sign of nitrogen overload, although hot conditions can also cause the flavor of your carrots to be off.
Root-knot nematodes will probably be the culprit of forked or distorted roots. Apply beneficial nematodes to the soil before planting to provide a few months of control.
Yellow or dark brown spots on the foliage of the carrots is a sign of leaf blight. It’s a fungus that appears late in the season. Remove and destroy the infected leaves and practice crop rotation.