Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
What are Carrots?
Think carrots are boring vegetables? Think again! The lowly carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus)is an ancient vegetable with an interesting story. It is a domesticated version of the wild carrot. Domesticated in Persia, now known as Iran and Afghanistan where many wild carrot species still thrive, it spread throughout Europe and Asia. There are historical references to the domesticated plant in the first centuries AD. Carrot seeds have even been found in southern Europe dating back thousands of years.
Carrots were originally grown for their foliage and seeds like their cousins parsley and cilantro. Careful breeding resulted in larger and sweeter taproots which then became a food source. If you don’t harvest your carrots, you will discover that they are a biennial. The first year, they develop their characteristic foliage and large root which is storing food for the next year. The second year, the plants use the food stored in the root to grow foliage as well as flowers which will then produce seeds.
Carrots aren’t only orange. All that breeding resulted in roots of different colors ranging from purples to yellows to white. Once they are cooked, they all revert back to orange.
How to Grow Carrots From Seed
Choose a spot that gets full sun all day or just a little shade. Carrots are one of the few vegetables that tolerate a little shade. They grow best in loamy soil. Clay soil is too heavy for the roots to push down through. Add some compost and sand to lighten it up. Rocky soils will result in crooked roots because the roots try to grow around the stones. Remove as many from your soil as possible. Ideally, you should have about 12 inches of loose loamy soil in your carrot bed.
Plant your seed outside in your garden about two weeks before your last frost date in the spring. For a fall crop, sow your seed 10 to 12 weeks before your first frost date. The seed should be planted ¼ inch deep and two inches apart in rows that are 10 inches apart. They will take one to three weeks to germinate depending on the soil temperature. Cooler spring temperatures will result in longer germination times while warmer summer temperatures will provide quicker germination. The seeds germinate best when the soil is between 60⁰F to 70⁰F.
The seeds need moisture to germinate. Water them carefully to avoid washing them away. Some people cover their seeds with boards to help retain moisture until the seeds start to germinate. About 3 to 4 weeks after germination, thin the seedlings to 3 to 4 inches apart. Overcrowded plants will produce crooked roots.
How to Grow Carrots
Water your plants at least once a week for a total of one inch of water per week. Weed, weed, weed. Carrots cannot compete with weeds. But weed carefully. You don’t want to disturb the taproots. It’s usually better to snip off the tops of the weeds rather than pulling them up out of the soil. The weeds will grow again, but if you cut off the top foliage enough times, the roots will eventually die. A nice thick layer of mulch, about 2 to 3 inches will help retain moisture between waterings and prevent weeds from growing.
As the taproots grow, they will start to emerge from the soil. Keep these “shoulders” covered with soil to prevent them from turning green and bitter.
There are two types of carrots, short maturity (90 days or less) and long maturity (120 days). The carrots that you see in the grocery store are Imperator carrots. They have long slender roots which need deep, loose soil to grow in and take 120 days to maturity. Shorter maturity varieties (90 days or less) include the popular Danvers carrots which are shorter and blunter and can handle heavy soils and the Nantes carrots which are also shorter than Imperators and also benefit from growing in looser soil. Which variety you choose to grow depends on your soil conditions and length of growing season.
How to Harvest Carrots
You can harvest your carrots when they reach maturity, either 90 or 120 days after germination or for late season sown plants, you can wait until after the first frost when the roots will be sweeter.
Give your carrots a good watering prior to harvest. This loosens the soil and makes it easier to pull up the roots. You don’t want to use a trowel or garden fork because that could damage the roots. You should carefully pull them up individually by hand. The best way to do so is by grasping the foliage and pulling and twisting until the root emerges from the soil.
If the taproot is refusing to be pulled from the soil, I carefully dig away some of the soil around it with my fingers so that I can grasp the root itself and pull.
How to Store Carrots
For short term storage, cut off the tops (foliage) of your carrots, wash them thoroughly and then seal them in an airtight container and refrigerate them. If they are not kept in an airtight container, the roots will go limp. You store them for up to two months in your refrigerator.
For longer term storage, remove the tops (foliage) and brush the excess soil from them but don’t wash them. Layer them in a sand or peat filled container and cover with straw. They are best stored in a root cellar or basement with an air temperature of 32⁰F to 40⁰F. They will keep for up to six months.
© 2017 Caren White
Caren White (author) on February 08, 2017:
Marlene, I would be so honored if you shared it on your gardening site. Thank you so much!
Marlene Bertrand from USA on February 08, 2017:
This is a very helpful article on growing carrots. It has everything a gardener needs to know about growing this delicious vegetable. I would love to share it on my gardening website.