Whether fattened from nearly a year's growth or picked young and tender a few months after sowing, home-grown carrots are sweeter and earthier than any you might buy. They make excellent container crops (good news if you struggle with your soil) and by combining the wide range of varieties with careful winter storage it's possible to enjoy roots almost year-round
While supermarket carrots may be relatively inexpensive, they’ll never be able to match the fresh, crisp sweetness of just-harvested roots from the garden or allotment. And with careful planning it is possible to enjoy them fresh from the ground almost year-round. The first seeds can be sown under protective fleeces or cloche covers from mid-February for an early June crop, while a final sowing in July will produce roots through to October that can be lifted for storage up until the following spring.
These delicious crops are classified according to how quickly they reach maturity – they are either ‘earlies’ or ‘maincrops’ – and how long the roots are: short, medium or long. Early carrots take as little as 12 weeks to produce roots and are best sown earlier in the season, while maincrop varieties take a few weeks longer but will form solid, robust roots better suited to storage over the winter. Gardeners with a lighter soil – containing a higher proportion of sand – have the best conditions for carrot growing, but even if you have heavy clay earth it’s still possible to get a decent crop by using compost-filled containers.
Pick a sunny position for your carrots, particularly for those sown earlier on in the year, although any started off in summer can cope with partial shade. Prepare the soil thoroughly in winter by digging it over and cultivating it until a crumbly soil texture, or fine tilth, is achieved. Carrots grow well in light soils but if yours is very sandy you will need to incorporate well-rotted organic matter into it, such as homemade compost, to improve the waterretentive properties of the earth. Take care to pick out any large stones from the ground which would cause the roots to distort as they hit them, forming unusual shapes. If your soil is not sandy, has lots of stones or is of a clay consistency you can still grow carrots, but pick the short-rooted varieties which are better able to cope with these conditions – as longer types will reach further into the soil, it makes them more likely to hit obstacles and deform or ‘fork’. Alternatively grow them in containers .
For a really early crop, place fleece or cloches over the soil to warm it up a few weeks before starting off your carrots from mid-February. Two weeks before sowing, add a top dressing of bonemeal which will provide a welcome boost of nutrients. Apply this at the rate of one handful per square metre.
Carrot seeds can be sown on a still, sunny day into your prepared ground. Draw lines into the soil surface using the end of a cane pulled tight against a string line to ensure perfectly straight rows. They should be about 1.5cm deep and 15cm apart. The seeds are very small but it is important not to sow them too closely together, as this will reduce the need for thinning them later on – when the smell of the uprooted young plants can attract carrot flies. To keep the seeds well spread, pinch a few between your fingertips and move your hand quickly down the row, dropping them as you go. Mixing the seeds with sharp sand will effectively dilute them and so make this job a lot easier.
Begin the carrot sowing season in mid-February or March by starting off early varieties under the warmth of cloches or fleece. By April it will be possible to sow them without any added protection and from May you can switch to maincrop varieties, which will produce bigger roots. Keep on sowing at two to three week intervals until the end of July, when the seeds that will form the bulk of carrots for winter storage are sown. Water along the rows with a rose-fitted watering can if the weather is dry to hasten germination, which can take as little as one week or as much as three.
With the carrot seedlings up you can breathe a sigh of relief – the trickiest part is over. Then it is simply a question of keeping the soil moist, removing any weeds and thinning the young seedlings as they grow until the plants are at their final spacings. Thinning can be done in stages, with the first one completed as soon as all the seedlings have appeared, to leave one plant every 2.5cm. Then when these plants are 7–10cm in height, thin them again to leave 5cm between plants. The thinnings at this stage will make irresistible ‘baby’ carrots with an unrivalled sweetness and tenderness. Alternatively, thin seedlings in one stage when they are one stage when they are 2–3cm tall to 5cm between plants – this won’t give you a baby carrot crop but is less time consuming than the other method.
Always thin seedlings in the evening when carrot fly are at their least active. Disturbing the soil wafts the smell of the tender young plants through the air, so give the remaining seedlings the best chance of survival by completing this task on a still day and firm back the soil around the remaining seedlings to ‘trap’ the scent. You should also water the seedlings after thinning, to settle the soil.
Plants grown under the protection of fleece or cloches can be exposed to the outside air as soon as the weather turns milder in April. Play this by ear as some springs will be milder than others, while in different parts of the country your carrots will need protection for longer.
Once they are fully thinned and growing, strong carrots need little attention. Keep weeds at bay by hoeing between the rows, hand weeding close to the plants to avoid damaging the roots. At this stage the top-growth of the plants will be quite thick and so naturally suppress most annual weeds.
Carrots will grow more steadily in sandier soils but as the ground will also be free draining and therefore quick to dry out, water regularly by hand or use an irrigation system to keep the roots moist. Any that are allowed to dry out will become woody and lose their flavour, while repeated alternation between wet and dry conditions will cause roots to split. Take added precautions against carrot root fly and they need never become a problem (see the ‘beating carrot fly’ box, right).
You could try extending the outdoor carrot season further by sowing a final row in August and covering the young plants with cloches from October. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to indulge in a freshly dug crop of roots in December.
In warmer parts of the country the first carrots will be ready by June and even late May. They are best eaten immediately, as they don’t keep as well as the more robust maincrops. Trim the leaves from the top and enjoy the roots fresh in salads or lightly steamed. To lift carrots, place a hand fork a few inches from the roots and loosen the soil around them. They can then be lifted with ease. Harvest the largest roots first, leaving smaller ones to grow on further. Occasionally the tops may be green where the soil has been washed away to expose them to sunlight. This isn’t a big problem but be sure to cut any green parts away before using the carrots.
Maincrop varieties sown in the summer will be ready by autumn. Lift the final roots through October and place them into storage. Again, trim the foliage and wash off any excess soil. Allow the roots to dry, then place them into wooden boxes of sand. Stack the carrots into the box, covering each set with a layer of sand and making sure they do not touch. Keep them in a cool, dry place such as a frost-free shed or garage. Check on them every few weeks, removing any diseased roots, and they should keep until March.
Dig over the soil in preparation for the new season. Make sure you pick a different spot to last year to better guarantee healthy, disease-free conditions.
Finish digging over the soil and rake it to a fine tilth. Sow the first early varieties of carrot under cloches or horticultural fleece.
The sowing season is now well under way, so keep sowing seeds under covers. You should also be enjoying the last of the stored roots from the previous season.
Make the final sowings of maincrop carrots this month. These will form your winter store so ensure enough are sown.
Keep on harvesting carrots that were sown in the spring. Make a late sowing if you're feeling adventurous.
Water as necessary to ensure your final sowing of carrots progresses steadily. You want good, strong roots to ensure they last well in storage.
Beating Carrot Fly
The most common pest of carrots is the carrot fly, a small post that lays its eggs at the base of the plant foliage. The eggs hatch to reveal larvae that will eat out the core of the root, causing the leaves to wilt in hot or dry weather and potentially devastating your crop. This isn’t a reason for undue alarm – if you take a few precautions they won’t get the chance to attack. Their parents are at their most active in May, so if they have been a nuisance in the past you could wait until June before sowing maincrop varieties.
The flies are attracted by the smell of carrot foliage, which is particularly strong when it has been crushed. To counter this, thinning should be kept to a minimum. Sow as thinly as possible or use special pelleted seeds that are easily spaced out to their final distances. Seed tapes are also handy, whereby seeds are spaced evenly along a biodegradable tape which will simply rot away. If you need to thin seedlings, do this as late in the day as possible and when the air is still. Always firm back the soil around the roots and discard the thinnings well away from the vegetable patch by burying them.
The flies fly close to the ground, so a simple windbreak-style barrier of fine netting around your carrot rows will outwit them, as will a covering of fleece during the peak time of threat. Try one of the carrot fly-resistant varieties such as ‘Maestro’ or ‘Fly Away’ if you’re worried.
Related Forum Topics
Carrots: Varieties To Try
Autumn King 2
The smooth roots of 'Autumn King 2' will keep well in storage over the winter. The reliable maincrop variety can be sown from March onwards and forms medium to long roots that have earned it a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit.
Early Nantes 2
A popular variety that is an exceptionally early cropper and perfect for sowings made under cloches or fleece. The roots are tender with little pithy core and as such make good contenders for freezing. This is a good variety for children to grow as it develops quickly – the first medium-sized roots will be ready in as little as 10 weeks from sowing.
If you want to grow carrots in containers or if your soil is heavy or stony, 'Parmex' is a good choice. The spherical roots are quick to reach maturity and have a delicious flavour that makes them ideal for use raw in salads. Why not try sowing them in old grow bag compost saved from the previous season?
Growing In Pots
Carrots are tailormade for container growing, which is why many kitchen gardeners don’t even bother growing them in the ground. Any pot with adequate drainage holes that’s at least 30cm wide and 20cm deep makes a good home for carrots, which can be sown directly into fresh multipurpose compost. Sow them in exactly the same way as carrots in the open ground, but with the rows a little closer – up to 7cm apart. Select a shorter rooted variety such as ‘Parmex’, ‘Mignon’ or ‘Carson’ as these will grow quickly in these ideal conditions. Once the carrots are lifted, remove the top 5cm of compost and loosen the bottom layer, before topping the container back up with fresh compost and re-sowing. You should be able to achieve two or three harvests per pot each year – not a bad result from a small space.