Two secrets to success with carrots: keep seeds moist until they’re up; provide loose soil for long roots.
Few other vegetables can match home-grown carrots for vitamin content and sweet flavor. Carrots have the happy habit of remaining in good condition long after maturity, so roots are rarely wasted. And even though carrots prefer cool weather, crops can be grown in midsummer in all areas of the country but the South. In mild-winter areas, if you plant carrots in early fall, the roots will continue to grow slowly during the winter, insuring a steady supply for salads, stews, and carrot sticks. Most varieties require 65 to 75 days to grow to full size.
Recommended varieties. ‘Nantes’ and ‘Goldinhart’ are very sweet and tender and of medium- length. The miniature ‘Tiny Sweet’ is just the right size for finger carrots. ‘Red-Cored Chantenay’ has heavy, stumpy roots and excels in shallow soils. ‘Gold Pak’ needs deep topsoil for its long roots to develop.
How to plant. From the size of the mature carrot root, you could guess that they would need deep, porous soil to develop to full size. Adding a thin layer of topsoil won’t do; you have to open up the hard clay or silt soils to a 1-foot depth by spading in organic matter, such as well-rotted manure or peat moss. Too much coarse compost, however, will cause carrot roots to fork. Minimize soil compaction by laying boards between rows to walk on. Or try the sand trench method by planting seeds 1/2 inch deep in a trench of sand 2 inches wide and 8 inches deep. Feeder roots will grow sideways through the sand and draw nutrients from the soil.
Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep and 1/2 inch apart; later thin to 2 inches and finally to 3 inches as you remove half- grown roots for kitchen use. Germination can fail in dry weather when the soil dries out quickly and crusts form. You can improve sprouting by covering the seeded furrow with a board or plastic sheet. Seedlings look almost grasslike when the first leaves emerge, so weed carefully.
Starting carrot seeds in pots and transplanting them to the garden has some advantages over sowing seeds directly in the ground. Because germination is more certain in pots, you save on seeds. You also save the labor of early weeding and thinning. Still another advantage: you can sow at any time of the year.
Sow 10 to 12 seeds evenly in a 4 or 6 inch pot. Keep the soil damp, thinning to six or eight evenly spaced carrots per pot. Set out by planting the entire clump in the planting hole, turning it out of the pot carefully to avoid breaking the soil ball. Harvest the whole clump at once.
Care. Carrots respond to frequent light applications of fertilizer and regular watering by developing large and tender roots. Rough roots can result from prolonged wet, cool weather. Twisted, distorted roots are often caused by delaying thinning too long. Forking and branching roots result from the use of fresh manure, rough, slow-decaying compost, or layers of hard soil. And infrequent watering can cause cracking of roots; the hard roots can literally swell and burst open when they finally get water.
Pests. Carrot rust fly is the one enemy which can be considered serious. Its larvae tunnel into roots of carrots. This is primarily a warm-weather pest; plant carrots to mature in cool weather so grubs won’t disfigure them. Or try digging in lots of well-rotted compost to encourage natural predators.
Harvesting. Begin pulling carrots as soon as roots reach finger size, harvesting all roots before seed heads form. If the soil is a little hard, prying roots with a trowel as you pull up on the tops will prevent them from breaking off; or water before pulling. If you do break off a top, dig out and eat the root; it may not grow a new top.
Carrot roots are easy to store where winters are severe (elsewhere, leave them in the ground). Before the soil freezes, dig the roots, break off the heavy part of the tops, and store the roots in dry sand or in leaf or straw pits or piles.
In containers. Short varieties and miniatures are best choices. Soil should be at least 12 inches deep and very loose.