I have had a tumultuous history with growing carrots. I’ve tried a lot of times, and some years have been more productive than others (to put it mildly). But, at least I’ve picked up a lot of carrot growing tips to share with you along the way! So assuming you are also interested in how to get started with carrots (because why else would you be here?) I’m ready to share the combined wisdom of everyone I’ve learned from – from famous gardeners to my father in law – in this ultimate getting started guide.
In the right conditions, carrots are a pleasingly quick crop to grow. And they come in a surprisingly variety of colors and shapes too, so there lots of potential for growing something more exciting than you can already pick up at the store. What’s more, they can be eaten from root to leaf-tip, and even store well in the ground over winter. No wonder they’re a staple crop for so many growers!
- Carrot basics
- Popular carrot varieties to grow yourself
- Growing conditions for happy carrots
- How to get started with carrots – sowing and growing
- Caring for growing carrot plants
- Carrot pests, diseases, and growing problems
- Harvesting and storing your crop
Carrots are closely related to parsley, cilantro, and dill. In fact, carrot plants were also originally cultivated for their fragrant leaves and intensely flavored seeds, both of which are edible as well. Wild carrot plants, which are native to Central Asia, actually have a bitter, woody tap root that used to be discarded. But eventually, growers started selectively cultivating plants for sweeter, more tender tap roots that could also be eaten. And a new superfood was born!
These days, carrots are an accessible staple of people’s diets all across the world. They are a valuable source of vitamins A and C, as well as dietary fiber for healthy digestion. Since the seed is cheap to buy and carrot crops don’t need much space, they’re a popular crop for home growers too. And with a bit of planning, you could be harvesting them nearly all year round.
Popular carrot varieties to grow yourself
There are a dizzying number of carrot varieties to choose from. As well as long, miniature and spherical types, you can grow white, yellow, orange, red and purple roots. Or my favorite, Dragon Purple, which has purple skin and an orange core! Even more exciting (in my opinion) is that since cross-pollination isn’t a concern, you can grow multiple varieties of carrots in rows next to each other in a single season. This is both practical and fun. Practical because you can find out quickly which types grow well for you, or grow multiple types as insurance against one type failing. And fun because you can fill your dining table with an ever-changing harvest.
Black Nebula (main crop). Inky black purple all the way through. Besides pulling for eating, these are popular with growers for making homemade dyes and pigments!
Dragon Purple (main crop). Electric purple skin and an orange core. These are my favorite full sized carrot, because they taste great, and they just make eating your carrots more exciting, especially when shaved in salads.
Manpukuji (early). One of the longest varieties in the world – it routinely grows over 2 feet long! If you want to win the longest carrot at the county fair prize, this is the variety to try with. Grow the seeds in trash cans of stone-free top soil so they have plenty of room to grow.
Little Finger (early). A very popular and widely grown smallish variety, which is uniformly thick all the way along. Its size makes it perfect for snacking on, as well as using in cooking.
New Koruda (late). A short, resilient, super-sweet Japanese variety, ideal for growing in containers, shallow soils, or heavy soils. It’s a bit unusual in the States, but if you can find the seed it’s a great variety to start with.
Nantes (main crop). A popular all-rounder which has been grown for generations. This list simply wouldn’t be complete without it.
Parisienne (early). Traditional French variety with an exceptional concentration of vitamin A. The roots are small and round, so you can even grow them in relatively shallow containers.
Solar Yellow. Yellow heirloom variety which matures more quickly than almost any other – in just 60 days.
Sugar Snax 54 (main crop). Finally, a slender, deliciously sweet, orange variety, guaranteed to win over even the pickiest eater!
Early vs main crop varieties
What’s all this business about early and main crop varieties? Well, the traditional sowing season for carrot seed is late spring through til midsummer. The carrots which grow best when sown in this window are known as main crop varieties, or sometimes late varieties. But, there are some varieties which germinate at lower temperatures and even withstand late frosts, meaning you can sow them from late winter or early spring onwards. These are your early varieties.
Early varieties also reach full size quicker – usually within 10 weeks. Main crop varieties take 14 – 16 weeks to fully mature, but they are more likely to grow bigger too. By growing both early and main crop varieties, and making several sowings of each at 3 or 4 week intervals, it’s possible to harvest fresh carrots nearly all year round.
Growing conditions for happy carrots
Carrots love deep, light soils. Light soils have a lot of sand in them and few rocks or stones. Which means they’re easy for the carrot’s tap root to penetrate. If you have heavy, clay soil, try growing your root veg in containers or raised beds instead, or pick a variety noted for its success in heavy soils, like New Koruda. In shallow soils, pick a round variety, like Parisienne, or Atlas.
Carrots have a broad temperature tolerance, between 50 and 75°F, but some early variety seeds will germinate in soils as cold as 40°F. And some main crop varieties will keep doing their thing in temperatures up to 80°F. If you have a cold frame or greenhouse you can extend you carrot-growing season by sowing a sprinkle of seeds into a deep pot of compost before the outdoor growing season starts, and after it ends.
Finally, carrots like consistent access to water from the soil, and plenty of nutrients. Mulching the spot where you’re going to grow them with a thick layer of compost or well-rotted manure early in the year will both provide nutrients that leach down in the soil, and slow down evaporation of moisture from beneath the surface.
How to get started with carrots – sowing and growing
Carrot seeds are usually sown directly into the place where they’re going to grow, since they don’t like having their tap root disturbed once they have germinated. They should be sown half an inch deep – I like to get a straight channel of the right depth by lying a bamboo cane about half an inch thick on the ground, and pressing it into the soil to make a perfect indentation.
The aim is to end up with seedlings 2 – 3 inches apart in the ground, so they have enough space for their tap root to develop into a full sized carrot without jostling for space with its neighbor. Gardeners all seem to have their own preferred way of achieving this, and some popular approaches to try are:
- Sprinkling the seed straight from the packet as finely as you can, and thinning out the seedling later.
- Mixing the seeds with a handful of sand, to help spread them out.
- Buying seed tape – soluble paper ribbon with the carrot seeds already embedded at exactly the right intervals.
Once sown, you’ll need to keep the seeds moist until they germinate. This can be tricky when sowing them at a shallow depth in light soil, because their environment is going to dry out quickly! Check out the video at the top of this article for a neat trick to keep the conditions just right until they germinate.
Finally, sow more seeds every 3 – 4 weeks, for successive harvests all through summer. Carrots’ roots stop developing in cold winter soil, so a couple of months before your firth frost date, switch to sowing into large containers in a greenhouse instead.
Can you buy carrots as plug plants?
Carrots don’t like having their tap root disturbed, and transplanting them tends to produce stunted or misshapen harvests. Nonetheless, nurseries do often sell carrots as plug plants. If you want to try starting your crops that way, there’s not much to lose by trying. But plant them out as gently as possible, and prepare to be a little bit philosophical about the results.
Caring for growing carrot plants
Carrots are a little fussy about the conditions they will germinate in (must be warm and damp enough) and the type of soil they need to form straight, regular-shaped roots (light and sandy enough, without rocks or stones). But once the seedlings are up, and there’s nothing more you can do about the conditions underground, they are relatively low maintenance. If your seedlings need thinning out when they appear, do it at dusk when carrot fly are least active, and handle them as gently as possible to avoid crushing the leaves or stems. Crushing the stems releases aromatic compound which act like a magnet for carrot fly. Water your growing carrots with about an inch of water a week if it doesn’t rain, and remove any weeds which will compete for water, light and nutrients in the soil.
Carrots pests and diseases
Carrots are a core crop for so many growers, that when I started growing them myself I assumed they would be much more fool proof than they actually are. Besides getting soil conditions right, and navigating germination, there are a some common gardening enemies which could come for your crops, and other problems you might need to troubleshoot, such as:
- Forked or stunted roots
- Carrot fly
- Wireworm and weevils
Forked or stunted roots
First up, carrots which aren’t carrot shaped when you pull them up. The carrots’ tap root can be stunted by heavy clay soil, transplanting it from one location to another as a seedling, or if it hits a big stone on its way down into the ground. Smaller stones or obstacles can cause roots which have forked or grown in unusual shapes. If this is a recurring problem, you can switch to growing your carrots in pots or buckets of compost instead, and always start your plants by sowing seed directly where they’re going to grow. Don’t discard a few wonky veg though – they’re still perfectly edible. Sending photos of your rogues’ gallery of roots to your friends is usually a fun diversion too.
Carrots with splits in their skin are caused by uneven access to water while they were growing. After a long dry period, heavy watering causes the root to swell rapidly, which splits the skins. To avoid it, water your carrots during dry spells. A deep soak once a week is better than a light drizzle that barely permeates the surface every day.
Carrot fly is the arch nemesis of the carrot. When they sniff out a growing carrot they lay their eggs around the base of the plant, and their larvae dig tunnels through the roots, steadily munching away at your harvest. What’s left when you pull the plant up is usually inedible. Keep these bugs at bay by:
- Sowing seed thinly so you don’t need to thin the seedlings out.
- Thinning out the seedlings at dusk if it does have to be done.
- Covering your carrot rows with a physical barrier, such as horticultural fleece or Enviromesh draped over hoops.
- Grow your carrots in a raised planter or in pots on a wall or table – carrot flies rarely fly higher than a couple of feet off the ground).
- Grow rows of carrots between rows of alliums like onions, garlic or chives. The strong odor of the allium leaves acts like a baffle, to stop carrot flies detecting the scent of your carrots.
Wireworm and weevils
Wireworms and weevils are two more pests which will happily chew tunnels through your crops. Wireworms are the larvae of click beetles, and They don’t tend to decimate a whole row of carrots in quite the same way as carrot fly larvae do, but nonetheless, it’s frustrating to lose some of your harvest to them. To protect your roots:
- Rotate your crops each growing season (i.e. don’t grow carrots in the same place two years in a row).
- Water the soil with predatory nematodes that eat weevils and wireworms (find them online).
- Put up a barrier, like a fleece or mesh tunnel over your crops.
- Some insecticides are available, but their effectiveness is limited.
Harvesting and storing your crop
At last, your carrots are ready to harvest when you start to see the orange carrot top peeking up through the surface of the soil. Pull them directly upwards by their stems, and they should lift easily. Remove the leafy tops promptly when you get home, because they will keep drawing water from the root otherwise, causing your carrots to shrivel. Don’t discard the tops though, they are edible too! Turn them into pestos or chimichurri, add them to salads and soups, or mix them in with grated carrot and aromatic spices in a carrot fritter.
Main crop carrot varieties can be left in the ground until you need them, even after their foliage dies back. Cover the row with straw or cardboard to supress weeds and insulate the soil a little. And don’t forget to dig up your roots before the ground freezes! Once dug up, carrots last a couple of weeks in the fridge, or:
- About 4 weeks pickled in a sterilized jar
- About 3 months blanched or roasted and then frozen.
- Also about 3 months made into a cake and frozen.
- Or about a day if made into a cake and left within reach of your family!
How to get started with carrots – summary
I know I’m not the only one who has mixed feelings about carrots. Growing them can feel like a lot of effort and uncertainty for something that costs cents in the grocery store. So I don’t tend to grow rows of carrots in the ground any more. Instead, I pick one or two unusual varieties that I’d never be able to buy in stores, and grow them in containers where it’s easy to control the conditions and protect them from pets. I hope you’ll experiment with growing them too, and work out what approach works for you. Let us know what varieties you’ll be trying in the comments box down below!