How to grow carrots
The Dutch introduced carrots to Britain during the reign of Elizabeth I. They've since become a cornerstone of our diet. We Brits are now among Europe's top carrot-crunchers, although most of us seem content to consume bland supermarket varieties. But you don't have to! Like all root crops, the flavour of carrots really improves when they're grown at home, so why not have a go?
Just follow these simple steps and grow your own carrots. They'll taste crunchier and fresher and with plenty of different varieties to choose from, you'll never go back!
Preparing the soil
The secret to successful home-grown carrots starts with good soil preparation. Think about it. If you were a carrot, would you want to force your way down through tightly packed earth in a doomed effort to grow big and strong? No you wouldn't. So, pick a sunny spot, grab a spade and get digging. Break up clods and aerate the soil, removing any stones. What you're aiming for is light, crumbly soil that will allow the carrot roots to flourish. If you have very heavy or stony soil, a short-rooted variety might be a better bet. Or you can try growing short-rooted carrots in containers.
Don't be tempted to add manure. This will make the soil too rich for carrots. Rake in a light dressing of general fertiliser around a week before you intend to plant your carrots. If you prepare your soil early enough, you can plant carrots in April. But, because it's important to prepare the soil properly, I suggest that you dig your carrot patch in April and plant in May.
"Autumn King 2" is a reliable, heavy cropping variety. "Mignon" is a short-rooted carrot that's great for growing in pots. "Flyaway" is a popular, flavoursome variety that many gardeners choose because of its resistance to carrot fly. There'll be more on fighting this pesky pest in later modules…
Pic: GAP Photos/Rice/Buckland
You may have thought that the hard work was behind you once you finished digging over that carrot patch. The physical graft might be done with but you'll need to stay alert in the coming weeks if you want to get the best out of your carrot crop. First things first, though: let's sow the seeds. Rake the earth until it forms a fine "tilth" – crumbly soil that's ready for sowing. Mark a row with garden twine and create a 2cm-deep drill (channel). Sow thinly – you're aiming to drop one or two seeds every 2.5cm. Cover and firm the row gently. Label it and water if the weather has been dry. Space rows 15cm apart.
Getting it taped
Take care not to sow the tiny seeds too densely. An over-populated carrot drill will cause you problems in a few weeks' time. If you tend to be a bit butter-fingered, don't try to sow by scattering seeds directly from the packet. Instead, pour some seeds into the palm of your hand and use the other hand to sow a few at a time. The reason why you need to sow sparsely is to avoid too much thinning out once the seedlings have emerged. The scent of the bruised leaves of thinned-out seedlings can attract pests. Some seed merchants sell carrot seed in tapes of biodegradable paper. They're spaced so that the resultant seedlings require the minimum of thinning.
Variety double act
Main crop carrots can take 10-16 weeks to mature. In order to begin harvesting earlier, many gardeners choose to sow a fast-maturing carrot at the same time as their main crop variety. Sow the two varieties in alternate rows. Well-tried early varieties include "Amsterdam Forcing", "Early Nantes" and "Flyaway".
Pic: GAP Photos/FhF Greenmedia
Thinning carrot seedlings
Carrot seedlings normally start to appear 2-3 weeks after sowing. Once they're big enough to handle – around 2.5cm tall – weaker seedlings should be removed. With most vegetables, this thinning-out process merely means making sure the strongest plants are left at the correct distance from each other. When you're thinning out carrots, however, you need to ensure that you keep any bruising of the seedlings to a minimum. This is because the carrot fly, a major pest, is attracted to the smell of the bruised foliage. Handle the thinnings as little as possible. Don't leave them lying around the vegetable plot – burn or bury them straight away.
Many gardeners recommend that you thin carrots in the evening to reduce the likelihood of a carrot fly attack. It's also believed that firming and watering the remaining seedlings immediately after thinning helps to keep this pest at bay. Whatever steps you've taken to reduce the carrot fly threat, aim to leave 5-8cm between your remaining seedlings. Hoe between rows of young carrots to keep weeds down but the plants' own foliage should discourage weeds as the crop matures. Water regularly.
Another defence against carrot fly is the use of fine netting. Carrot flies are around 1cm long, so they won't be able to penetrate the finer netting available from garden centres. What you're trying to do is to stop the carrot fly laying its eggs in the soil around the base of the seedling: the resultant larvae eat into the roots. Lay the netting over a simple, low frame to protect seedlings. When the carrots are older, trying surrounding them with a vertical fence of fine netting, at least 70cm high. A mulch of grass cuttings has also been known to deter carrot flies – the mulch makes it difficult for the fly to get to the soil to lay its eggs.
Pic: GAP Photos/Claire Davies
Looking after & harvesting young carrots
On the pull
If you adopted the strategy suggested above, you'll have some early carrots in the ground as well as main crop varieties. Early carrots can be ready for pulling between 7 and 10 weeks after sowing. It'll probably be a couple of weeks before your early crop is ready but you can start looking out for indications that the roots are becoming mature enough to eat. One tell-tale sign is that the foliage begins to wither. But you might want to enjoy your carrots slightly immature. They'll be deliciously sweet and crunchy if they're harvested young. The best strategy is to experiment by pulling a few. Not too many, though!
A firm hand
In the weeks leading up to harvest-time, keep the soil moist by regular watering if the weather is dry. But do try to avoid drenching very dry ground: fluctuations in the water content of the soil can cause carrots to split. A hand fork is a useful tool for lifting carrots without damaging the roots. After lifting, firm and lightly water the disturbed soil to discourage the attentions of carrot flies. Harvesting in the evening will also help guard against these pests. Carrot fly maggots burrow under the surface of the root, causing widespread damage (see picture). So, anything you can do to keep them at bay is worth a try.
Second time around
June is a good time to sow main crop carrots for lifting in September and October. If you've noticed that your first crop of carrots are dividing in two (a condition known as "fanging"), this means that the ground they were growing in was too stony or that it wasn't dug over and loosened sufficiently. The carrots are perfectly edible but it's probably a look you want to avoid. Make sure the ground where you sow your second crop is well loosened. Resist the temptation to add manure to the soil – this can cause fanging, too.
Pic: GAP Photos/FhF Greenmedia
Harvesting main crop carrots
Main crop carrots can be ready for lifting from as early as 10 weeks after sowing. But, depending on variety and growing conditions, they can also take as long as 16 weeks. Pulling main crop carrots is often a little more difficult than harvesting early varieties. They're bigger, they've been in the ground longer and the earth is harder. One tip is to water your crop the evening before you intend to harvest it. Another is to use a border fork to loosen the soil around the carrots before lifting. Remember to harvest in the evening to lessen the likelihood of a carrot fly attack. See Lessons 3 and 4 for more on deterring carrot flies.
Now is your last chance to get some main crop carrot seeds into the ground for use in October. Raising and harvesting summer crops is lots of fun but enjoying home-grown veggies as the first chilly days of autumn arrive has an appeal all of its own. There'll be more on late-cropping carrots in Lesson 6.
If your main crop carrots are in the ground and still have a few weeks to go before they're ready to be lifted, take some time out to check their crowns. Are they sticking out of the ground? If they are, you may be exposing your crop to a fairly common carrot disorder, green top. Green top is caused by the action of sunlight on exposed carrot crowns. Green carrots – unlike green potatoes – aren't bad for you but they don't look very nice. You can easily avoid green top by earthing-up over the exposed crowns. Safe under their blanket of soil, they'll be a perfect orange when you come to harvest them. Enjoy!
Pic: GAP Photos/FhF Greenmedia
Growing & protecting late carrots
The main attraction
Your main crop carrots should be ready for lifting soon. Trust us, no supermarket carrots will taste anywhere near as good as the ones that you pull from your own garden! Meanwhile, if you sowed a batch of late main crop carrots a fortnight ago, look out for the seedlings: they'll be emerging soon. Thin them according to the instructions in Lesson 3, taking care not to attract carrot flies. As you clear areas of the vegetable plot by lifting carrots, give some thought to planting a "catch crop". This term applies to fast-maturing veggies sown in the space left by harvested crops. Radishes or lettuces make excellent catch crops.
Did you raise a crop of early carrots? If you did, you'll know how delicious they can be and you'll be itching to use them to extend your carrot harvest as late as December. If you didn't, then now's your chance! Varieties like "Amsterdam Forcing", "Early Nantes" and "Flyaway" will all work with this technique. Sow in August and cover the crop with cloches when colder weather arrives in September or early October. Cloches are transparent frames that use the plants' own heat and any sun there is to keep the crop warm. You can buy simple cloches or collapsible poly-tunnels in garden centres. Allow the roots to grow in the normal way: they'll be mature in November. At this point, stop watering the crop. The carrots will keep perfectly well in the drying soil and can be pulled when needed.
Living in a box
Gardeners who live in very mild parts of the country leave their carrots in the ground over winter. They cover the crop with straw and lift carrots as required. In colder areas, lift all your remaining main crop carrots in October and store them. The time-honoured technique is to twist off the stalks, brush off excess soil and place the carrots in a box of sand. Don't let them touch and don't store any unsound roots. Keep the box in a cool, frost-free location. Stored in this fashion, the carrots will keep until early spring.
Pic: GAP Photos/Zara Napier
Tuck into these Good Food carrot recipes.