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Grow Your Own Carrots

carrots
Freshly pulled carrots, straight from the garden. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

The humble carrot may be easy and cheap to buy, but the absolute pleasure of picking a few fresh carrots to crunch on straight from your garden and the taste sensation you will receive are well worth the investment of your time.

With a bit of good planning, it’s possible to have a supply of carrots from your garden nearly year round, and what a food to have on hand—this versatile vegetable is an absolute powerhouse of nutrition. Raw, steamed, baked or juiced, carrots are packed with vitamins any way you eat them. And the humble carrot has a beautiful secret that only carrot growers will get to discover.

Soil

Being a taproot, carrots need soil that their roots can easily grow into. If a carrot has to push its way through heavy clay, compacted or stony soil, then this can slow down growth and cause deformed roots. Sandy, loamy, loose soil that is deep and well dug is best. You will find that different parts of your garden will grow better carrots than others, so you may need to experiment with different areas.

Carrots are not heavy feeders and like to grow in soil that has been fertilised or composted in a previous season. Overly- enriched soil can cause misshapen roots also. The aim is to grow long, straight, smooth roots. Having said that, you can buy seed varieties that are small and bulbous that will happily grow in more shallow soils.

Planting

While it’s possible to transplant carrots from seedlings, being a root vegetable, it makes sense to grow them directly from seed. As the seeds are small and difficult to handle, it’s a good idea to mix them with some dry sand before planting. Dig a trench about 2 cms deep, keeping your trenches in rows about 30 cms apart. Sprinkle your seed/sand mix into the trench and fill over top with light soil. Once the carrot tops are about 10 cm tall you can do a first thinning, leaving about 5 cm between plants. Thin them again a few weeks later to leave a final spacing of about 8 cm. Your thinnings will make for a juicy snack.

Something that often seems to trip people up when growing carrots is getting the seed to germinate. If you want to grow carrots successfully, you need only remember one thing— moisture. Once you plant your carrot seeds you must keep them moist (but not too wet) until they start to pop out of the ground. Carrot seedlings are too fine to push through a dry crust.

Some gardeners will cover their carrot bed with shadecloth or hessian, or even a plank of wood, in order to prevent the soil drying out during germination. Then you need to keep up a very regular light sprinkling of water through the shadecloth or hessian. Lots of love in those early weeks.

Carrots can take a 1–3 weeks to germinate, so don’t panic if they take a while to appear. Once they do appear, remove the cover and let your carrot babies enjoy the sunlight.

Clockwise from top left: A carrot starting to show its size through the top of the soil. You want carrots to be at least 2.5 cm in diameter before you pick them; Carrot patch ready for the first thinning; Carrots come in lots of shapes, colours and sizes; Thinning carrots allows other carrots to grow larger in size. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt

When To Plant

Carrots are usually sown in late winter in warm climates, and mid-spring in cool climates. However, many varieties say you can grow them year round, and if you do a few plantings three weeks apart you will have a nice succession of carrots to eat in your home garden. Keep in mind that carrots grown through a few frosts can have more flavour as the plant will start to store energy as sugar in the roots for later use. Really hot weather can cause carrots to grow fibrous.

Harvest & Storage

Carrots can take 2–4 months to mature, depending on the variety and climate. Harvest your carrots at whatever stage you like or wait until you can see they are about 2.5 cm in diameter. Scratch the soil away from the top of the carrot to see their size. This may be within three months. Don’t be misled by bushy tops (especially if they have been overfertilised), as the roots might still be spindly. You might want to wet down the bed before you harvest to make the carrots easier to pull out, or gently use a fork.

One of the great pleasures of growing your own carrots is eating them fresh from the garden. They store well in the ground so you can harvest them as you need them. Carrots are quite cold-hardy and will be fine in the ground through winter, especially with some mulch on top. If you’d like to harvest your carrots to make room in your garden, pull them out, twist the tops off, scrub off the dirt and store them in a tub of moist sand somewhere cool.

Varieties

There seems to be an endless variety of carrots with a plethora of different names and colours from orange to white, red, yellow, purple and crimson. Look for a variety that will suit your climate and a size to suit your garden bed. The Nantes bright orange heirloom variety is great because of the large cylindrical root that doesn’t taper at the end. It’s also very sweet. You can buy heirloom Paris Market varieties that have a small bulbous root suitable for smaller garden beds or pots.

If you’re keen and have only a small space to grow carrots, there are a few interesting ideas out there you can try. One is to bury 45 cm lengths of drainpipe vertically into the garden bed, fill it with a soil and compost mix, and plant your seeds on top. The carrots will grow the length of the drainpipe and then into the garden bed beneath. If you want to be in with a chance of winning the ‘longest carrot at the show’ award, then this could definitely be worth a try!

Growing Issues

Carrots are generally disease-free in the home garden, although occasionally slugs and snails can be a problem. You can deter carrot whitefly by companion planting onions with your carrots. For carrot maggot, you can sprinkle coffee grounds or diatomaceous earth around your plants. If you end up with amusing carrot shapes, twisted around itself or rather hairy, then you may have added too much manure or nitrogen to your beds, you may not have thinned your carrots enough or you may have planted in soil that is too heavy.

Saving Seed & The Beautiful Secret Of Carrots

Not until you decide you love growing carrots and want to save the seed will you discover that carrot has a beautiful flower head. Is it worth the wait though? Carrot is a biennial. In its first growing season it will put out a taproot and then later it will produce secondary roots off the taproot, and finally, if you’ve managed to wait that long, in its second year you will see the carrot flower.

If you are harvesting your carrots and find the perfect specimen, you can store it for replanting later. Otherwise you can transplant immediately to a designated area of your garden and it will continue to grow and finally give you the flower head full of seed. Imagine if we all had the garden space and time to slow down our lives enough to plant beds of carrots just for their beautiful flowers!

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