Each year, I grow approximately 90 kilos of carrots in two raised beds. Apart from giving away a bunch here and there to friends and family, our vegetarian household of two consumes the lot. Carrots are an absolute basic so it’s a pity many gardeners have difficulty growing this essential root. Problems include difficulty getting the seed to germinate, misshapen roots, dry and/or tasteless carrots, and roots that just aren’t large enough. The rules of carrot-growing are simple but you do have to follow them to the letter to be sure of success. As with all vegetables, it’s the growing medium that’s most important.
The best bed
Carrots are fussy, but in the way you’d least expect it. They simply will not tolerate freshly manured soil (that doesn’t mean they won’t grow in it, but it does mean they won’t thrive). The best bed for carrots is one in which a crop has previously been grown and which has had no manure added to it since. You can add a few buckets of mature compost to the bed if you like, and even a couple of handsful of blood and bone, but don’t dig in more animal manure. If you do, rather than growing straight down, the carrot roots will grow in all directions and become misshapen as they seek out the fresh nutrients. Carrots will also be misshapen if they have to dodge lumpy soil, so remove sticks, stones and lumps of clay from the bed before sowing. If this is impossible, grow stump rooted or ball carrots which are shorter in the root.
When to sow
You’re wasting your time if you sow carrot seed into ground that is less that 5˚ Celsius. When gardeners complain of poor germination with carrot seed, it will inevitably be because the ground is too cold. Wait until the season warms up before sowing or, if you’re impatient, raise the soil temperature and get ahead start by covering the sown seed with clear plastic. This will to lock in heat until germination occurs. If cold conditions persist, lift the plastic and use it to create a cloche over the young seedlings. Carrots that are too cold will display reddish foliage, a sure sign it is too chilly for them to access essential nutrients.
How to sow
Carrot seed should be sown in 1.5cm deep depressions and covered with 5mm of very fine soil (I sieve mine). Rows should be 30cm apart. The seed is very small. To avoid sowing it too thickly, a number of tricks can be employed. Some gardeners mix seed with sand at a rate of 60% sand to 40% seed. As you sow, sand and all, the seed is naturally spaced out. Other gardeners swear by placing their seed in a salt shaker and shaking it into the rows. Still others believe in mixing radish and carrot seed together for sowing. The radish seed matures first and, as the radishes are harvested, the carrots are automatically thinned. Carrots don’t like to dry out (a common cause of ‘woodiness’ and lack of flavour). Water seed after sowing, and again five days into germination. If conditions are dry, water carrots twice a week. A good, deep soaking is best for maturing carrots.
Carrots take from 80-100 days to mature, and sowing them at three weekly intervals throughout spring and early summer is the best way to ensure an ongoing supply of this must-have vegetable.
Growing the big ones
A common complaint with carrots is that they just don’t put on any weight. The answer is almost certainly because of a lack of thinning. As soon as carrot seedlings can be handled (2-3cm high), thin them by pulling some seedlings out of the ground and creating space for those remaining. Slim and short varieties need about 1.5-2cm of space between individual seedlings while main crops (the big rooted varieties) require 5cm each side of them. It can seem wasteful to thin out perfectly healthy seedlings but if you want good sized carrots, brace yourself for the task and get on with it.
While carrots don’t like freshly manured soil, they do appreciate a weekly feed of liquid manure as they are growing. Your own concoction of animal manure, seaweed and nettles or comfrey soaked in water for a few days will do the trick. Pour it directly onto the plants.
Pests and diseases
Slugs and snails enjoy carrots at all stages so lay bait at the time of sowing seed and again as the seedlings begin to mature. Net the young plants to keep birds off the garden. To help prevent carrot fly, net the crop with fine mesh.
Don’t forget to eat them!
The reality of home-grown veges is that they have dirt on them! And the reality of getting your family to eat the carrots you grow is that you’ll almost certainly have to harvest, wash and trim the vegetables yourself, and put them in a bowl in the middle of the table where they’ll be noticed and eaten. Even though those plastic bags of pre-washed carrots in the supermarket may look inviting, they don’t hold the mouth watering flavour of your own produce. Get your family hooked on home-grown, and they’ll be the first to complain if you don’t grow carrots every season.