Our garden is the farm's pride and joy. We love spending time in it, and preparing meals out of our fresh produce.
After a long summer of careful cultivation, your carrots have grown beautifully and are ready to be harvested. Now it is time to dig up your carrots for one of the best snacks you can get: fresh carrots right from the garden.
Carrots will have the best flavour when they have turned a bright colour (around the “days to maturity” time for the variety) but all varieties of carrots can also be harvested small as baby carrots. Carrots can be harvested throughout the growing season, but they will get sweeter in the fall when the nights are cool and after a few frosts. Unless your soil is very loose, it is best to dig carrots to avoid breaking them off in the ground. Remove the tops and eat them right away, or store them for the winter.
Once your carrots are ready, it is time to grab the garden fork and start pulling. Let’s learn when is the best time to harvest your carrots, and how to pull and store them.
When to Harvest Carrots
The most delicious carrot has a perfect balance between flavour and sweetness, or in technical terms, between terpenoids and sugar. It is important to understand how these two chemicals develop in a carrot so you can harvest them when they are at their peak.
Terpenoids develop first and are an organic compound that give carrots their classic “carroty” flavour. Terpenoids taste quite bad on their own which is why a carrot that is harvested too early can be soapy tasting and astringent.
Then the carrots start producing sugar and the flavour improves. The sugar is used by the carrots for food either as glucose or is converted into starch and stored for later use.
Here are some tips for when to harvest carrots so they will be the sweetest with the best flavour.
Harvest Brightly Coloured Carrots
Carrots are best harvested when they turn a bright, vibrant colour (either orange, purple, or yellow depending on the variety you are growing). At this point, the sugars and terpenoids will be at their peak for a great tasting carrot. This usually happens around the “days to maturity” listed on your seed packet. Most carrot varieties take an average of about 70 days to reach maturity. Some fast-growing varieties take only 50 days while other cultivars take upwards of 120 days to mature.
While the exact number of days until your carrots matures will cay slightly depending on your growing conditions, these numbers are usually fairly accurate, sometimes down to the day.
Calculating Days to Maturity
When timing your carrot harvest, remember that the days to maturity are from germination, or when the seedlings first emerge from the soil, and not from when you planted them. As carrots can often take 3 weeks to germinate, make sure you anticipate this in your planning and harvest.
When we harvest carrots, they are considered horticulturally mature, meaning they are ripe for the picking. This is different from botanically mature, which is when the carrots are mature enough to start reproducing and go to seed. A carrot is a biennial meaning it blooms in its second year, and a carrot’s ultimate goal is to store up enough food in the first year to overwinter and then send up flowers in the spring. If we don’t harvest the carrot when it is horticulturally mature (with the bright, full colour), its edibility will quickly decline as it strives to become botanically mature.
Harvesting Baby Carrots
Even though carrots are best harvested when they are mature, all carrots can be picked at any size. Some varieties are particularly sweet when they are harvested as baby carrots even though this is well before their days to maturity.
Baby carrots can be incredibly sweet and flavourful though they won’t store as well as carrots that reach their full colour. They are a great treat throughout the summer as a reward for all your hard work in the garden.
Hot Days and Cool Nights
Carrots will get sweeter when the days are hot and the nights are cool, because they will produce lots of sugar during the heat of the day, and will “rest” and store the sugar when the temperatures remain cool at night. However, if the nighttime temperatures are over 15°C (60°F), then the carrots will respire in the absence of photosynthesis and consume the sugars it made during the day.
Why Do Carrots Turn Bitter?
One reason carrots turn bitter is because they are a cool season vegetable and are less likely to produce sugars when the temperatures exceed 26°C (80°F). Growing in consistently hot temperatures can lead to less sugar to offset the bitter terpenoids.
Chill Sweetening Your Carrots
Carrots, like many root vegetables, get sweeter when they are harvested after being exposed to frost. This process is known as chill sweetening, and the cold temperatures convert starches in the root back into sugar. You can use this phenomenon to your advantage by leaving your carrots in the garden as long as possible so they grow large but are still sweet from being chill sweetened. This can be especially beneficial if you have a short growing season.
Harvesting by Size
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to carrots. Some varieties are short and fat, others are long and skinny, plus everything in between. Check your seed packet to see what size your carrots should be when they are finished growing. As your carrots near maturity, they will (hopefully) be the proper size for the variety you are growing.
However, it is very disappointing to pull up your carrots only to discover a tiny, stunted little thing instead of the large, succulent root you were expecting. There are many reasons why your carrots didn’t grow as fast or as big as they were supposed to, and your best bet is to leave them in the ground so they can continue growing if the season permits
If you aren’t sure if your carrots are ready or not, your best bet is to dig one up and see. This is a great excuse to enjoy a little snack while you are “working” in your garden.
How to Harvest Carrots
Once your carrots are ready to harvest, it is time to start pulling. To make carrot harvesting as easy as possible, here are some helpful steps to follow.
1. Water Before Harvesting
The day before your want to harvest your carrots, give them a good watering or wait to harvest until the day following a nice rain. This won’t help with the actual harvest, but it will ensure your carrots are nice and juicy and well hydrated when you harvest.
Speaking from experience, however, it is hard to pull carrots out of really muddy soil and they will be caked with mud that will have to dry before storage. For an easier harvest, keep the soil moist but not soggy.
2. Loosen the Soil
Carrots are prone to breaking in heavy compact soil but they can even break in loose well-worked soil, especially if they are forked, so it is best to loosen the soil before trying to pull them out.
You can use any tool you prefer: shovel, broadfork, garden fork. Our preferred tool is the garden fork as it causes less damage to the roots.
Step the garden fork in beside your carrots and pull back on the handle to lift the soil and the carrots. Make sure you don’t put the fork in too close to the carrots and risk spearing them. Also, if your carrots are long and deep, don’t tip back the fork too much or it can cut into the tips of the carrots under the ground. The idea is to just loosen the soil enough so the carrots pull right out.
3. Pull Out the Carrots
Once the soil is loose, most of the carrots should come out with no trouble. Take hold of the greens as close to the base as you can and pull the carrot out.
Brush off any loose dirt that is still stuck to the carrot (at this point you will be thankful that the soil wasn’t too muddy).
4. Remove the Tops
Twist of the tops with your hands as close to the top of the carrot as possible. For long-term storage, you might need a knife to trim off any stubborn green stems.
Leaving the tops will draw moisture from the carrot causing it to go soft and any green will rot in storage. If you want to keep the tops on for bunching carrots, cut off the top half of the greens to reduce moisture loss.
How to Store Carrots
Once you have your harvest out of the ground, the carrots can be stored or preserved for eating over the winter.
Carrots store best around 0.5°C to 4.5°C (33-40°F) and 90% to 95% humidity. They can also be frozen, canned, pickled, or dehydrated.
"How you like them apples?"
Storing carrots next to apples, or other ethylene-producing fruits, can cause the carrots to produce more terpenoids and become bitter.
Short Term Storage
Our preferred way to store carrots for a few months is to brush off any excess dirt (but do not wash), and put them in a Ziplock bag or sealed container in the fridge. Carrots keep very well this way as it keeps them cool with good humidity.
Long Term Storage
Thick cored carrots are best for long-term storage. Baby carrots or coreless carrots will not last as long or as well.
Not many homes these days are built with root cellars, so packing the carrots in sand can keep them in the ideal storage conditions. Again, start by brushing off any loose dirt but don’t wash your carrots before storage. Find or build a wooden box and put a layer of sand on the bottom. Place a single layer of carrots on top, then add another 2 to 3 cm (1inch) of sand. Repeat until the box is full.
You can add a bit of water to the top of the sand to keep the moisture up and place the box in a cool spot in your basement. These carrots should store for up to 6 months.
If you live in a mild-wintered climate and can keep the soil from freezing, carrots can be stored outside in the ground all winter. Unfortunately, in our Zone 2 garden, the soil freezes over 2 meters (7 feet) deep every winter so this is not a reality for us. Since we don’t have any experience with this method, here is a very useful article that tells you how to overwinter carrots and other root crops.
Our second favorite way to store carrots is to freeze them. Wash and cut the carrots into whatever size you generally like using them. Blanch them for 3 minutes. Freeze them on a tray, such as an old cookie sheet, before bagging them or putting them in an airtight container.
Enjoying the Harvest
Harvesting carrots is really as simple as going into the garden and pulling one out of the ground. However, this article has hopefully given you some new ideas on how to harvest the best possible carrots and ways to store them so you can enjoy the bounty of your garden all year round.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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