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Many gardeners dream of growing perfect carrots. The seeds are sown shortly after the first catalog arrives, and flawlessly grow into rows of sweet, crunchy perfection with feathery tops that wave in the breeze. With tops firmly attached, each golden-orange root slides effortlessly from the ground, never snapping. The roots are always straight and smooth; they never fork or have any odd-looking bumps, and there aren’t any splits, root maggots, or rodent teeth marks. Only a quick rinse with a garden hose is needed before you’re enjoying the sweetest, snappiest carrots ever tasted, without a hint of bitterness, soapiness, or woody texture.
Unfortunately, more often than not, these heavenly carrots grow strictly in the imaginations of cabin-fevered gardeners. The reality of growing carrots can be sobering and more than a bit disappointing — at least at first. It’s not the carrots’ or the gardener’s fault; carrots are just more challenging than most veggies. Oftentimes, carrot troubles stem from growing the wrong cultivar in the wrong soil conditions — something Bugs Bunny never had to deal with.
Carrots (Daucus carota) are biennial members of the parsley family. They have a two-year life span, during which they grow and store energy in their roots the first year, and then flower and produce seeds the next. Wild carrots produce a thin, white or purple root that’s tough, bitter, and soapy tasting. They’re practically unrecognizable as a garden carrot. For all of their sophistication, though, the familiar garden-variety carrots are barely domesticated and will quickly escape to the wild given the chance. You’ve likely seen the descendants of escaped carrots in the form of Queen Anne’s lace. Only in the perfect conditions of a well-tended garden does a carrot show its full potential.
Photo by Adobe Stock/juliedeshaies
Those perfect conditions are the difference between bitter, split roots and carrot gold. Carrots need light and loose sandy or loamy soil that’s free of any rocks or hard clumps. You can lighten your soil by adding a mixture of sand and composted leaves, using more leaves than sand. Avoid heavy, rich composts and composted manures; carrots grow hairy, forked roots in soil with too much nitrogen.
Carrots can produce two crops per season. Plant the first crop several weeks before the last spring frost in your area. Second-crop carrot seedlings planted in midsummer will appreciate the light shade provided by a floating row cover, at least until the heat begins to break. Later in the season, carrots don’t mind a bit of frost. In fact, a few frosts at the end of the second crop will actually sweeten the roots, causing them to change starches over to sugars for storage.
Large, long-rooted carrots, such as ‘White Belgian,’ will grow best in soil that’s loose, giving them room to expand to their full size. If your soil is very stony, you’ll have better success with Chantenay types, such as ‘Early Scarlet Horn.’ Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
When it’s time to plant, select a spot with plenty of sun — the more sun, the better. Carrots can tolerate light shade, but they produce best in full sun. You’ll also want to choose a spot with excellent drainage. Dig and loosen the soil to at least a 1-foot depth, or 2 feet if you plan to grow long, Imperator types. Like most commercial vegetable varieties, Imperators have been bred for machine harvesting, not flavor. If you prefer better-tasting carrots with less digging, plant either Chantenay, globe-shaped, or “half long” types.
Sow carrot seeds directly into the ground. They don’t do well as transplants, because any root constriction will result in misshapen, forked roots. Carrot seeds are small and fine, making them difficult to handle and prone to clumping, especially if your fingers are damp. Space the seeds 3 inches apart in rows at least 18 to 24 inches apart. Alternatively, you can mix seed with fine sand, dry potting mix, or dried coffee grounds and broadcast the mix across the ground. This method works especially well when planting in beds.
Cover the seed lightly with fine soil that won’t form a crust, and water it thoroughly. Carrot seed sprouts slowly, sometimes taking as long as three weeks to appear above the soil. The soil cannot be allowed to crust or dry out in that time. Many gardeners interplant radishes with carrots to provide a marker for the row, and so the faster-growing radishes break up the soil surface. You can also cover the seed row with broad, light boards to keep the soil moist, soft, and protected. Check the seeds’ progress daily, and remove the boards as soon as you see signs of growth.
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As your carrots grow, they’ll need to be thinned so there’s room for them to become large, straight, and sweet. At first, snip off unwanted sprouts with scissors to avoid disturbing the remaining roots. Later, pull crowding plants, which make great baby carrots for the table or lunchbox. (Those bags of “baby” carrots at the grocery store aren’t young carrots at all; they’re cut down and shaped sections of fully developed roots.) Final spacing should allow 6 to 9 inches between roots. Hill loose soil or mulch around the base of the carrots to prevent the roots’ shoulders from greening and growing bitter. Carrots need consistent watering, and should receive 1 inch of water a week.
Harvest and Storage
Once the carrots reach your desired size, it’ll be time to harvest. It may be tempting to just pull the roots out by their tops, but unless your soil is potting-mix perfect, you’re likely to come away with nothing more than a handful of greens. Instead, use a digging or potato fork to ease the roots from the soil. Step the fork into the soil about 4 inches from the root to avoid spearing it with a tine, and then lean back on the handle to loosen the soil and lift the root free. Clean the soil away from the shoulders, and carefully pull the carrot free by hand.
With multiple purple-colored cultivars available — including options with colorful interiors ranging from bright-yellow to almost black — gardeners can pick and choose their favorite. Photo by Getty Images/robynmac
Wash off excess dirt, and cut off the feathery green tops, leaving a short stub of stem. Carrots can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to one month. For longer storage, fill a large container — a clean plastic trash can or solid-sided laundry basket works well — with clean, damp sand, and place it in a basement or root cellar. Bury the cleaned carrots in the sand, ensuring each root is completely covered. Carrots will stay fresh for 4 to 6 months stored this way. Alternatively, leave carrots in the ground over winter and harvest as you need them. Before the ground freezes, cover the carrot bed heavily with straw, fallen leaves, or mulch. (Whole small straw bales can be set directly over row-grown carrots, and are probably the easiest covering to manage.) As long as the ground under the cover doesn’t freeze, you can dig carrots all winter long.
Diseases and Pests
Carrots are susceptible to a few fungal and bacterial diseases. Rather than trying to manage a disease outbreak, which can be hard to identify, maintain good growing conditions to avoid the problem in the first place. Encourage good airflow by properly thinning your carrot bed, and keep nearby plants from overhanging the area. Fertilize sparingly, if at all, and avoid using manures or other high-nitrogen fertilizers. Water sufficiently, but take care that your carrot bed isn’t waterlogged.
Carrot pests include aphids, flea beetles, carrot flies, and swallowtail caterpillars. All can be controlled with a floating row cover, although you may want to leave a few plants uncovered so swallowtail butterflies can find them. The beauty of the butterflies and the pollination they perform far outweigh the price of a handful of carrot tops.
Roots to Root For
Branch out from supermarket options and consider growing one or all of the following heirloom cultivars:
‘Early Scarlet Horn.' Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
‘Early Scarlet Horn’
(55 to 60 days)
Sometimes called ‘Hoorn,’ this carrot hails from the Dutch city of Hoorn, and has the classic deep-orange color of Dutch cultivars. According to legend, this is the first orange carrot, bred deliberately for the House of Orange of Holland. Most historians now agree that the colors were merely coincidental. The cultivar was first mentioned around 1610, and was a favorite in seed catalogs during the 1800s.
‘Early Scarlet Horn’ is a Chantenay type, meaning it produces a top-shaped root with broad shoulders, a blunt tip, and a fine taproot at the bottom. (Chantenay carrots are sometimes referred to as “stump-rooted.”) ‘Early Scarlet Horn’ typically delivers a stout root about 6 inches in length, and is an excellent choice for gardens with stonier soils. It’s also hailed as an exceptional early cropping carrot that allows double plantings, even in short growing seasons.
‘White Belgian.' Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
(85 to 90 days)
For an ancient-looking carrot with modern flavor, give ‘White Belgian’ a try. This white carrot with green shoulders originated in the Flemish region of Belgium, and likely contributed to the parentage of many modern carrots.
‘White Belgian’ produces a large tapered root that can reach 18 inches in length and 4 inches in diameter. Originally bred as stock feed for horses and cattle, its mild, sweet flavor makes it welcome in the kitchen, especially in soups. ‘White Belgian’ isn’t as frost-tolerant as some cultivars, and stores poorly in frosty conditions.
‘Black Nebula.' Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
‘Violet’ or ‘Purple’
(80 to 90 days)
More obscure than the other cultivars, this ancient carrot likely dates back before medieval times to its ancestral home in Afghanistan. It’ll bring attention to the table with its deep-purple skin and bright-yellow core. It’s a smaller carrot, about 1 inch in diameter and 8 inches long, with the stereotypical Imperator form. ‘Violet’ tends to have a strong, “wild” flavor, but is quite eye-catching when shredded into a salad or sliced for a veggie tray. Cooking denatures the anthocyanins that give the root its color, but the purple tones can withstand a quick steam or sauté. If you can’t locate ‘Violet’ seeds, consider other purple-colored carrots, including ‘Black Nebula’ (pictured above), and ‘Gniff.’
Carrots take a bit more work than, say, tomatoes or peppers, but once you bite into a crisp, frost-sweetened root, you’ll no doubt agree they’re worth the effort. Sure, they may be picky about their bed, sort of like the princess in “The Princess and the Pea” (maybe the story should’ve been “The Carrot and the Pebble”?), but beyond that, they’re undemanding. Give them full sun and even watering, and they’ll repay you with garden gold.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He’s an officer in the Backyard Fruit Growers, a grassroots group dedicated to helping people grow healthy fruit in their own backyards.