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Growing carrots in your garden plot can be a rewarding activity, providing you and your family some great tasting and healthy home grown food – done correctly.
Done incorrectly it can become an exercise in frustration, wasted time and wasted garden space. Growing them isn’t difficult, providing you know some basic things up front.
Carrots are dense in vitamins, macro-nutrients, and natural (healthy) sugars. They contain l-carotene and lutein, which are powerful antioxidants, and important for maintaining eye health. Just another good reason to be growing carrots.
Grandma wasn’t kidding when she said carrots were good for your eyes. Those old timers knew some good stuff, long before scientists were ever able to confirm it!!! Ever see a rabbit wearing glasses???
There are lots of carrot varieties available today, and were
developed for different environmental conditions. There are also unique colors beyond basic orange. Reds, yellows, whites and purples are readily
available in today’s seed catalogs. Many of the "not orange" colors are quite old varieties, many developed hundreds of years ago.
I grow my carrots in the fall so I can over-winter at least some of them right in the garden. This requires planting them in August, so I have to select a heat resistant variety.
Danvers is my top choice. It grows large, sweet, crisp carrots that lend themselves well to fresh eating, juicing, freezing and canning. Danvers is also quite heat resistant, so starting them in late summer for a fall/winter crop isn't a problem.
They have the added benefit of being an heirloom variety, so you can leave a few over winter, and collect seeds the next year for your future gardening needs.
Properly prepared soil is essential to successfully growing carrots. Some short, fat carrot varieties can withstand dense heavy soils, but even those varieties do considerably better if you prepare your soil. Long, thin deep rooted varieties will not do well at all if you don’t prep your soil.
Carrots do their best when planted in light, loose, sandy soil. Dig the soil double deep (twice as deep as you would for other most plants). If your soil isn’t already sandy, work in some sand, and a generous amount of compost. This makes the soil looser and lighter. Once prepared, you should be able to dig into it with your bare hands. This also makes weeding easier later.
Carrot seeds are tiny and are nearly impossible to sow individually. It’s much easier to broadcast the seeds more heavily than the final crop will be, and plan to thin them later.
I plant my carrots on a wide row design. Meaning, I plant them by scattering them down a row about 6 inches wide. You can produce a much larger crop by planting in a wide row. Planting any narrower, and it’s wasting valuable growing space. Much wider and you can’t effectively mulch the row later on.
Scatter seed on the soil surface and use a light touch to rake the soil so that the seeds are worked in at about ¼ to ½ of an inch. I prefer to work them in simply using my hands. Plant them too shallow, and they may dry out once they start to germinate. Too deep, and the fragile seedlings may never make it to the surface. Either can result in a light of even a failed crop.
Carrots are slow to germinate – 1 to 3 weeks is common. The cooler the soil, the longer they will take to sprout. Be patient and keep the soil gently watered every couple of days so as to not wash the seeds away. A watering can with a sprinkler head is the best tool for the job.
I’ve read recommendations to plant a few radish seeds along with your carrots to help mark out the row until the carrots come up, because radishes will germinate in just a few days. I’ve not tried it, but it seems like a good idea.
Once your carrot seedlings star to germinate, weeds will be a big concern, until the plants get big enough that you can start mulching around them.
For the first 3 or 4 weeks, keeps the tiny plants weeded regularly. Most weeds grow faster than carrots, and will simply crowd them out if you don’t keep up with them. Weeding is also faster if you keep up with the job. The longer you wait, the longer it will take you to get the job done. At this stage weeds should be pulled by hand, as cultivation is not reasonable.
Most gardeners will thin their carrots after about 3 to 4 weeks. This will produce straighter, and in some cases larger carrots. I’ve tried thinning, and I’ve tried not thinning.
Not thinning seems to work very well for me. You will get some variation in size at harvest time, but you will also have more to harvest. Smaller ones will take up the space between the larger ones, and VERY few are too small to bother with.
On occasion I’ll find two that have wrapped around each other, and grew crooked, but they still taste the same. One of the main reasons I’ve read for thinning is to avoid crooked carrots. Depends on what you are looking for, pretty carrots, or a heavy harvest.
Once your carrots are 2-3 inches tall, it’s time to start mulching them. My preference is dried grass clippings. They'll mat down enough to deter weeds, and hold in soil moisture, but aren’t so heavy as to damage the carrots. They will also decompose almost entirely by the next spring, adding valuable nutrients to your garden soil.
Don’t use fresh grass clippings, because they will pack down, grow mold and become a slimy, nasty mess. When you cut your grass, let the clippings dry in the sun for a few hours or a day, and then use them for mulch. It’s the same concept as curing hay before bailing it.
As your plants get larger, you can add additional mulch to them. This keeps the tops of the roots covered, because they can push above the soil as they grow. If they are exposed to sunlight, they will turn green (and bitter).
If you plan to over-winter your carrots in your garden, a final heavy mulch in the very late fall is necessary. Grass clippings become scarce in the late fall, so straw or fallen tree leaves will work for that purpose.
Carrots are ready to harvest between 60 and 90 days, but can be left in the soil to grow much longer. If your soil is really good and loamy, carrots can be pulled by hand. A more realistic case would be to use a potato fork to dig sections of a row at a time.
One of the main reasons I grow fall carrots, is that their flavor improves dramatically after a couple of cold snaps. Carrots tend to sweeten up after a couple of good hard frost or light freezes.
Carrots are biennial, so storing sugars (plant energy) in their roots is a response to colder weather, so they can be prepared to reproduce the following spring.
Carrots can be easily overwintered where I live here in Southern Indiana, by simply piling on the mulch – grass clippings, straw, dry tree leaves or other dry garden trimmings will all work.
it's best to wait until after a couple of cold snaps to avoid rodents
moving into the nice warm mulch and eating your carrot crop.
Pile mulch up to a foot deep over the plants, to help insulate them from the coldest cold of winter. Overwintered carrots can be dug anytime you can get a potato fork into the ground to dig them.
Carrots are an easy to grow and very productive crop – with proper soil preparation. They are cold hardy and can be overwintered in place in your garden. They are high in nutrients and natural sugars, and stand up well to canning & freezing. Learning to grow carrots, is just another small step on your path to food self sufficiency.