My granny always insisted I eat my carrots. ‘You don’t see rabbits wearing glasses’, she’d claim. As a spectacles wearer I can’t help but wonder if I should’ve paid more attention at the time, but these days carrots are most definitely a favourite in my household!
Carrots do have a bit of a bad reputation as being a little tricky to grow. But they’re not…if you know how!
Sow with Success
For the year’s earliest carrot sowings, the soil needs to have dried out and warmed up a little after the winter. You can help things along by putting in place a temporary cover of horticultural fleece or plastic (or use a cold frame) a few weeks in advance to help dry and warm it for the sowings ahead.
It’s best to sow carrot seeds direct. It’s easier that way, and helps avoid bent or forked roots, which you may get if you try to transplant seedlings from elsewhere. The soil itself should be free-draining and not too rich, which can also encourage forked roots. Having said that, I don’t think it’s that big a deal to have forked roots. It just gives them a bit more character in my opinion! And where else would you get all those comedy-shaped veggies from?
Carrots prefer a sunny spot, though an area in dappled shade would work too, especially in warmer climates. Mark out drills about half an inch (1cm) deep and around 10in (25cm) apart, then sow very thinly. The seeds are pretty tiny, and it’s very easy to sow them too thickly. If you don’t have the steadiest hand, a simple tip is to mix the seeds with fine sand to sprinkle thinly along the drill, which will help spread the seeds out. Then just cover the seeds over with soil.
If the weather is dry you can water into the drill you’ve marked out before sowing. Water along the row a few times to really soak it, then sow. Doing this will help keep the soil surface dry, which will make it less attractive to slugs – more on those shortly...
Early spring sowings will give a harvest from early summer. Keep making small sowings every few weeks, finishing with a final sowing at the start of summer to give fatter, chunkier roots to store over winter.
Interestingly, holding back with the watering can pay dividends when it comes to flavour. It’s a case of treating them a bit mean to keep them keen! Carrots do need moisture to grow, but you’re only likely to need to water them in warmer climates or during a long dry spell.
Thin your carrots in stages to give them space to grow. The first tender young roots that you pull as thinnings are great eaten whole in salads or lightly steamed as a rather cheffy addition to the dinner table. Continue thinning in stages until the plants are about half an inch (1cm) apart. The roots will push themselves away from each other at this point, giving good-sized roots to harvest later on.
It’s very important to keep weeds in check. Carrots may not particularly care about soil type or having lots of water, but they do hate having to struggle against weeds, so pull them up every time you spot them.
Sock it to the Slugs!
Predictably, it’s those slippery slugs that are the first pest to watch out for, particularly earlier on in the growing season and in wet weather. They can mow seedlings to the ground as soon as they emerge, meaning you have to start all over again. Although seedlings are most at risk, slugs that live in soil can also carve out holes in the roots as they get larger.
One of the best ways to reduce slug attacks (aside from setting up slug traps) is to make doubly sure the area around your carrots is clear of weeds. This is where the slugs will lurk, so if there’s nowhere for them to hide, there’ll be fewer of them about.
This is a short-lived problem, however. You’ll probably find that sowings made a little later in spring are less likely to be noticed by slugs, which will have plenty of other plant material to munch on by this point.
As mentioned above, unless you’re in a very warm climate or it’s been exceptionally dry, you should rarely need to water your carrots. If the surface of the soil can be kept drier, then slugs aren’t going to venture out as much.
No (Carrot) Flies on Me!
The most notorious challenge when growing carrots is the carrot root fly. This tiny fly lays its eggs at the neck of the root, right at the top. The hatched larvae then burrow their way into the roots, wreaking damage as they tunnel and feed.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that these flies rarely fly more than a foot (30cm) above ground, so to stop them gatecrashing the party you can simply put a barrier that’s a bit higher than this – say 2ft (60cm) – right the way around your crop or, easier still, cover your crop with fleece or insect mesh row covers once the seedlings are up.
I’ve escaped problems so far, and I think part of the reason is that I am very careful when thinning out the seedlings, choosing a completely still day to do so. Carrot fly locate the crop by smell, so a calm day is ideal because the smell doesn’t carry on the wind. I also choose to thin in the evening when the carrot flies are less active. I then give the thinned rows a bit of a water to knock back the smell and settle the disturbed soil. If you don’t mind getting wet, you can even thin in the rain when carrot fly definitely won’t be on the wing.
Growing Carrots in Containers
An effective way to bar those carrot flies is to grow your carrots in tall pots, or containers raised up off the ground, which automatically lifts your crop above the danger zone of those low fliers.
Carrots don’t need a very rich soil – in fact a lower-nutrient soil even helps to improve the flavour of the roots. They also like it to be free-draining, so growing in pots is a great way to be able customise the perfect growing medium. One part sand mixed with one part potting mix is a great low-fertility option. Personally, I like to use old potting mix saved from last year, and to reduce costs I add to that two parts screened garden soil.
Sow your seeds thinly over the surface of a filled pot and then cover them over with a very thin layer of your mix. Water well, label, and put your container into a sunny position. Keep the potting mix moist, because unlike in the ground these carrots will be entirely dependent on you for all their needs. Thin the seedlings to a couple of inches apart once they’re up. Harvest once they’ve reached finger size, leaving the remaining roots to grow fatter with the extra space created.
How to Harvest Carrots
How do you know when your carrots are ready? Well, have a little root around (excuse the pun!) with your fingers and check the approximate width of the roots by looking at the neck of the root. The first roots should be ready as soon as two months from sowing.
Younger and shallower roots should pull up easily enough simply by gripping them firmly at the base of the foliage. It often helps to push down on the root first, and then give it a twist as you gently pull upwards. Larger, longer roots – particularly those of maincrop carrots that are grown for winter eating – may need to be eased up with the help of a fork, especially on heavier soils. Harvest in stages until roots reach full size. This way, you’ll be able to extend your harvest over many weeks.
Like many roots, frosts bring out the sweetness. In areas with mild winters you may be able to leave them in the ground over winter until they’re needed, but if you’re in a cooler climate, lift the roots in autumn and store them in a breathable box between layers of damp sand.
Don’t forget that carrots come in a range of colours – yellows, reds, purple and white – as well as, of course, orange. Try your hand at a range of roots and brighten up your world! I love carrots sweet and raw, roasted or whizzed up into a carrot and herb soup. What’s your preferred way to serve up these rousing roots? Let me know down below.