Carrots are a hugely popular biennial root vegetable. They’re really easy to grow. They love well-drained sandy soil and are resistant to most pests and diseases. They don’t mind a bit of frost, and as such make an excellent and very tasty late-season crop. Best of all, while we’re used to seeing traditional orange carrots in the shops, there are all sorts of delicious and unsual old varieties around which you can easily buy seeds for, varying from purest white to a wonderful deep purple color.
We particularly enjoy growing the Bolero variety because it’s so good at resisting leaf pests. The lovely, sweet Nantesa Superior variety is happy in more or less any kind of soil. And the Thumberline variety, with its unique round shape, is exceptionally good when your soil is clumpy or rich in sticky clay.
How to grow carrots – A fabulous root vegetable
When do you usually get your final frost of the winter? Plant your carrot seeds 3-5 weeks before the last frost is usually due. Because carrots need fine, loose, well-drained soil to push that big orange root through you’ll need to put some work into it, removing stones from the earth before planting. If the soil is too well packed-down, the root won’t be able to grow through it and will end up stunted. Plant your carrot seeds 3-4 inches apart in rows at least 12 inches apart, and there’ll be enough room for the roots to thrive.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but never pre-manure the soil. If you’ve ever seen those comedy carrots with two or more forks in the root, that’s how they happen. Fresh or rotted manure seems harmless, even beneficial, but it causes the carrot root to send out side-shoots so it’s best not to use it.
Looking after carrot plants properly
Once the seeds are safely in the soil, feel free to add a small amount of mulch on top of the soil to keep essential moisture in, boost the speed of the seed germination process and keep sun rays off the tiny new roots.
When the new plants reach an inch high, thin out any extras so you get one plant per 3 inches, providing plenty of space in between them. Don’t pull the spares out by hand or you risk damaging their neighbors’ delicate new roots. Use scissors and clip them off at earth level.
Water your young carrot plants at least once a week and keep weeds at bay. You’re safe to add a bity of fertiliser after 6 weeks.
The best carrots of all have survived some frosty weather. The frost makes them taste so much better. Once you’ve had the first autumn frost, cover the rows with a thick layer of shredded leaves at least a foot deep. This will preserve the roots beautifully so you can harvest them later.
Because carrots are biennial plants, leaving them in the earth makes the tops flower so you get loads of seeds in year two. You might like to leave some of them to produce seeds for your next crop, to save you buying them.
Carrot diseasees and pests to watch out for
The carrot fly is your worst enemy. You’ll notice brown tunnels in the tap roots and nasty yellow maggots in the roots from May to October. Luckily the flies find it difficult to fly more than 18 inches off the ground, so planting carrots in raised beds helps keep the little buggers at bay. Aster Yellow Disease is another baddie, causing shortened and discolored carrot tops and hairy roots. Avoid it by weeding rigorously and controlling pests like leafhoppers. You can also get resistant carrot varieties that are better than average at repelling leaf pests.
When are your carrots ready to harvest?
Carrots mature after 10 weeks or so, when they reach half inch in diameter. But you can harvest them earlier for tender baby veg or later for big, handsome roots. You can simply leave them be, there in the soil, until you want to pick them, as long as the ground doesn’t freeze.
What about carrot storage?
Twist off the leafy tops. Clean off the soil under the cold tap. Let your carrots dry completely, then seal them in airtight plastic bags and put them in the fridge. These are essential steps because just shoving them in the fridge from fresh makes them go all limp and floppy. For longer storage, put them in containers of moist sand and they should stay fresh for ages.