Growing Carrots with Character

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Carrot harvest

I can buy good organic carrots any time, but none of them taste like carrots freshly pulled from the garden. Truly fresh carrots have round, earthy flavour notes that come alive with the first bite. And then there's the texture. Carrots newly pulled from moist soil are as crisp as apples. Growing carrots that look and taste great requires attention to a few important details, but beautiful, full-flavoured garden carrots are worth a bit of extra trouble.

First you must choose a variety, or perhaps two or three. Half of how a carrot tastes is genetics. The other half is how it's grown and harvested. The Carrot Museum lists a solid roster of excellent varieties for the UK; in the US, 'Bolero' and other improved 'Nantes' varieties are excellent choices for a fine orange carrot. Don't be afraid to try yellow, red, or purple carrots, too. Yellow carrots compare nicely with orange carrots for eating raw, but varieties that are red or purple to the core taste far better roasted or grilled. Properly prepared, they are addictively good.

Carrot Planting Basics

Unless you happen to have wonderfully fertile garden loam, plan to spend a ridiculous amount of time preparing your carrot bed. Carrot roots must encounter no obstructions, a major cause of forking, which means removing rocks and breaking up clods until the bed is finely crumbled at least 12 inches ( 30 cm) deep. As you dig, work in a knuckle-deep blanket of screened compost (homemade is great), picking out any small sticks or unrotted pieces of organic matter.

Homegrown purple carrots

The use of compost in growing carrots is important for two reasons. Compost helps defend carrots from diseases that might injure the growing tip, another cause of forked roots. Garden carrots also need soil that is well endowed with potassium, which is naturally abundant in homemade compost. I also mix in a very light application of organic fertiliser when preparing to plant carrots, and then water the bed thoroughly.

Carrot seeds are naturally slow germinators, but you can speed things up a bit by priming the seeds indoors. Starting three to four days before you plan to sow them, soak carrot seeds in water for an hour, and then transfer them to a damp paper towel. Fold to enclose the seeds, then put inside an airtight container. Keep at room temperature. Plant the primed seeds within five days. I find that it is seldom necessary to prime seeds sown in spring, my rainiest season, but priming carrot seeds is tremendously helpful in summer, when I'm planting carrots for fall.

Thinning carrot seedlings
Thinning carrot seedlings

Once my carrot planting is done, I cover the seeded bed with an old cotton blanket to prevent washouts and keep the soil moist. Seeds germinate in one to two weeks, depending on the weather. One to two weeks later, they must be thinned, weeded, or both. For either operation I highly recommend a small pair of scissors, which is the least traumatic way to remove unwanted competitors. Once seedlings have germinated, there can be no disturbance to the soil within a thumbnail's distance from the base of the plant. Innocently pulling a weed might have unintended effects upon the little growing carrot (the forking risk again), so snipping is safer than pulling when you're thinning and weeding close to your little carrots.

Once carrots are up and growing, regular water and routine weeding will get you a nice carrot crop in a couple of months -- unless you live where carrot rust fly is a constant worry. Use lightweight fleece in areas where insect pressure is severe. Of equal importance is avoiding bruising carrot foliage, which releases gaseous plumes that attract rust fly adults in search of host plants.

Roasting carrots and potatoes
Roasting carrots and potatoes

Harvesting Garden Carrots

Immature or baby carrots are flavour weaklings, so it is always best to wait until garden carrots are fully mature to harvest them. Many varieties push up as the roots gain size, which is a sure sign of ripeness. The tops of carrot roots that are exposed to sun will turn green and taste bitter, so I hill up soil or mulch around carrots that pop up before I'm ready to dig them.

For top flavour, always try to harvest carrots when the soil is cool and moist. Then trim off the tops right away, because any attached foliage will take moisture from the roots rather quickly. Lightly wash to remove soil, and then promptly refrigerate your garden carrots. Technically they may last for months, but I suggest eating them truly fresh to get the full experience of carrots at their best.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"I have never heard of pre-germinating (soaking) carrot seed, will definitely try this method"
Karen Montgomery on Friday 20 April 2012
"Really useful tips re weeding and thinning- I'd been gently pulling up but snipping is a great idea. Like the tip re priming seed for later showings too."
Sara Caine on Friday 20 April 2012
"Thankyou for this infomation, it is just what i have been looking for,although i have not heared of soaking carrot seeds in water before, and i have been a gardener for many years,I am willing to try it."
Theresa Fisher on Friday 20 April 2012
"How far apart should each carrot sit after thinning? Also, how moist must the soil be kept? About how many days will it take until the carrots are ready to harvest after germination?"
Kim Spangrude on Friday 20 April 2012
"When cutting the tops back after harvesting, how much of the foliage do you cut back? Last year my carrots in the refrigerator got very soft in 2 weeks."
Pat on Friday 20 April 2012
"Another thought is to plant the seeds in the cardboard tube from kitchen paper rolls, with their own compost/fertilizer mix they grow nice and straight. If you want baby carrots use toilet tissue cardboard tubes.The tubes eventually break down and add to the compost in the garden."
Laurie on Friday 20 April 2012
"could you grow carrots in sand?"
colin loughlin on Friday 20 April 2012
"Hi Colin, Don't know if growing in sand alone will get an exceptable result - why not try it out and let us know on this blog."
Laurie on Friday 20 April 2012
"Pat, the tops should be cut back to less than one-half inch right away. The ones in stores have had their tops thinned are have been superchilled...Kim, see the profile in the GrowGuides for lots of little carrot growing details...Sandy soil is great for carrots, but plain sand would be too coarse. Carrots have such fine feeder roots that I think they would fail to thrive without organic matter. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 20 April 2012
"I would suggest planting carrots in raised beds that are about 12 or 15" deep and on legs to bring them waist high, and on casters. Only 'hard' work would be to sift any soil and/or compost to rid of tiny sticks, stones, etc... I say 'beds' plural so you can rotate with a couple other crops each year."
florence krohn on Sunday 22 April 2012
"Last fall I added fresh cow manure to my garden and let it sit until spring when I tilled into the soil but one article I read said not to plant carrots in manure. Is it ok to plant carrots in manure?"
Jeannine on Friday 27 April 2012
"Jeanine, it depends on your soil, climate and other factors as well. I don't think excess manuring is a problem much these days, but probably once was when that was the only source of fertilizer many people had available to them. If your manure rotted all winter and was then tilled in, I think you're in good shape for carrots or anything else."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 27 April 2012
"Barbara, I heard that the soil for carrots should be more sandy and not so rich in nutrients to cause the root to "search" for nutrients and thus grow longer. How does this advice sit with you? For years I have grow carrots in all areas of my garden to try to get longer carrots and I mostly come up with a short stubby harvest. The carrots taste fine but must be cut into coins not sticks for serving cold. "
Mark Hausammann on Saturday 28 April 2012
"Mark, all of my beds are constantly being improved, but one section of my garden consistently grows better carrots than the others. Keep looking for your sweet spots, and when they come up in your rotation plans, do a happy dance. Also stick with Nantes cousins (spring) and thick Chantenays (fall) as much as you can, based purely on their successful track records in home gardens. The longer the carrot, the pickier they are about site."
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 29 April 2012
"That is wonderful,Iam preparing my dissertation on this vegetable crop."
SIBORUREMA on Sunday 13 May 2012
"i am a new veg grower and am having trouble growing onions from seed i planted out a whole packet and only 6 of these are growing wot am i doing wrong "
lee on Friday 18 May 2012
"Lee, onions are so slow-growing at first that the seeds are best started indoors, where you can control conditions. Direct-seeded onions are a weeder's nightmare, if they come up at all. See this blog for many small details on growing onions from seed:"
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 19 May 2012
"thanks barbara also will it be ok to fin out carrots i just through all the seeds in the plot and to my surprise they have all come up and need to be thined out looks like i will have a good crop this year im a novice grower "
lee on Saturday 19 May 2012
"i have planted seeds in a improvised earth box with a half sand half compost mix. Will be interesting to see how it develops. Also put a few onion bulbs in to discourage carrot fly"
colly on Saturday 19 May 2012
"i will definatly try soaking seeds in water , this year 2013 i have started all my seeds in my greenhouse this has had good results , couldnt trust the weather it snowed had frost gales even started my potatoes off in green house "
jo on Sunday 5 May 2013
"I stored my last year carrot crop two ways one in sand and the other in peat moss. The sand is the way to go. My extended family enjoyed carrots from the garden at Easter. I still have a few left. The last ones in the sand are better cooked now "
Mark H. on Sunday 12 May 2013
"help.... i am great at flowers but not so good with veg Why on all my veg ,carrots onions beatroot do i have lots of folidge but no sign of a veg, my carots are all folidge and root i understand my onions will bulk in a month or so , my beetroot is all green no beetroot. i have put a recomended fertalizer advised best is the one that used for potatoes. my garden was once a farm land and potatoes were grown so i belive the soil is good Please advice or all my hard work done in vain Carol "
carol on Sunday 28 July 2013
"Carol, it sounds like you are in a cool climate, or perhaps got a late start. Don't worry. Carrots do take a long time to plump up, and prolonged cloudy weather can make beets run late. Be patient."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 29 July 2013
"Thank you . They are planted south facing but they were late going in so hopefully they be ok Thaks again Carol"
Benj on Monday 29 July 2013
"I planted carrots in the spring. They were in the ground 80 days and I harvested a few. They were ok. Went on vacation and about three weeks later I harvested several that looked good but were dry and had no or bitter taste. I left the rest in the ground and dug them up while getting the garden ready for winter. I thought these would be no good too but they are excellent. These have been in the ground since May it is now the beginning of Oct. I am wondering if the bitter tasting ones were due to being harvested in August during dry conditions."
Craig K on Sunday 3 November 2013
"You are right on, Craig. The variety you grew required cool soil temperatures to develop its sugars. Many gardeners stick with Nantes types varieties in spring and experiment more with interesting varieties when planting carrots in summer for fall harvest."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 15 November 2013
"Thanks so much for the tip on priming carrot seeds. I planted seeds twice this spring, few of them came up. So I soaked some seeds overnight; drained the water and folded the seeds in a piece of paper towel; put them in a ziploc for 2 days. The 3rd day I looked at them and a couple were about to sprout. I laid them on top of the soil (in a container),sprinkled a bit of potting soil over, patted them gently in, misted lightly and covered with a piece of floating row cover and then a big wide plastic plant saucer. 2 days later I saw some new sprouts; 3rd day, almost all were germinated. I removed the row cover and left the plant saucer over them, propped up a little with a rock. Looks like I'll be successful this time."
mosaiclady on Monday 23 June 2014
"I plant my carrots (nearly always Nantes variety in spring) in v shaped trenches which I make by inserting my garden spade to it's full depth into the row and moving it backwards and forwards to create a trench which I then fill with used potting compost to which I have added some granular fertiliser. I then sow my carrots into this and cover with more compost which has been sieved to remove lumps. So far very good crops of long straight carrots. Last couple of years been using carrot seed tapes - the moisture held in the paper tape seems to help germination. Thanks for all the info Barbara."
Alan Corbett on Sunday 10 January 2016
"The best-tasting, crispest (crispiest?), sweetest carrots I ever grew were planted downhill from an Emu pen where, of course, the slope allowed for a naturally occurring slow fertilization from the rain-diluted emu-poo! They were a little hairy (the carrots, not the Emu), but I would highly recommend Emu pen leavings as a carrot garden enhancer!"
Julie Kehler on Tuesday 22 November 2016

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