Everyone loves carrots. After all, what’s not to like? I wish I could grow all the carrots I need. Apart from onions, celery, calabrese and potatoes, I probably use more carrots than any other vegetable. But they are not that easy to grow well and lots of things can go wrong. A book could be written about growing carrots and I can’t hope to cover it all in this post but I will do my best, from my experiences.
Carrots are biennials and if sown in spring the plants store nutrients in the roots so that they can burst into growth and bloom the next year. This all goes well unless they have a dry period or cold snap during growth in which case they bolt and run to seed prematurely – you wont get good roots from these plants.
There are different types of carrot, from the short, stumpy Nantes type to long carrots. Some are relatively quick to mature and pulled young in summer while others get larger and are left till autumn to harvest, in which case they can be stored (in sand or old compost) for winter use. Don’t leave them in te he soil over winter or slugs will devour them.
Carrots need a light, fertile soil. If the soil is clay they will not do well and if the soil is stony the roots hit the stones and grow wonky. Never add lots of manure or fertiliser to the soil or the roots will fork or fang. These carrots may be hilarious to look at with their extra appendages but will elicit curses from the kitchen when someone has to cut them into rings.
I would rather grow a few good carrots than a bucket of rubbish ones so growing in pots is a sensible option for lots of us – see below.
Carrots are umbellifers and, like their compadres, their seed needs to be sown fresh – it deteriorates quickly. Sow fresh seeds. You can sow carrots from March to early July, but April and May is the main period.
When sowing in rows in the garden, take out the drills about 1cm deep. Carrot seed is very light and often the reason the seeds seem not to germinate is because they have blown away before they are even covered! Water along the rows before you sow. That way when the seeds drop in they stick. Sow the seeds carefully, evenly and thinly. Then cover with the soil, water and wait. Carrot seeds are not the quickest to germinate and, in late spring it will be two weeks before you see seedlings. It is important to keep the seed bed moist.
Weeds will appear too, of course, and you need to keep carrots free of weeds. This is easy between the rows – run a hoe along – but hand weeding is necessary between the plants. When you are sure all the seeds are up you will need to thin the seedlings. As with beetroot, water the rows the night before, if possible, and immediately afterwards, to prevent wilting. Your aim is to have the carrots about 1cm apart. You can always pull small carrots and thin as they grow, leaving the last 5cm apart to mature. And as you thin you get the lovely small of carrots….
Which is an open invitation to carrot fly!
Big sigh! Carrot fly. I hate carrot fly. These horrible little pests are what makes carrot growing so difficult.
Carrot flies are a native pest that lives on cow parsley – they also affect parsley. The flies lay eggs on the developing roots and these hatch into maggots that eat the roots. They don’t eat all the roots but cause scars, often horizontal, around the roots, indiscriminately, and ruin them. You can tell if you have the problem because some of the plants will show yellow, pink or purple foliage, as above.
I don’t want this to turn into a treatise on carrot fly but I must mention them in a little detail – or at least how to try to thwart them.
Because the adults home in on carrots by smell, that is the first way to stop them. Sowing thinly so thinning is kept to a minimum, helps, so you don’t make the plants release their aroma. Garlic spray, to disguise the smell, is another. I have tried this, making my own spray, with, I think, some success. It is always difficult to know the reliability of any method because you can’t be sure how severe the damage would be without my efforts. I made the spray by crushing the cloves of a bulb and letting them brew in a 5 litre bottle of water, left in the sun, and watering over the plants with this. Along the same lines you can plant onions between the carrot rows, hoping that it might disguise the carrot smell. Both crops like similar conditions so there is nothing wrong with it.
Carrot flies do not fly very high – usually less than 60cm above the soil – so putting a barrier around them should keep them out. Fleece works well but looks awful and makes weeding a pain – even if the fleece does not blow away.
It is better to cover the rows with fleece or fine mesh, keeping the plants under this their whole life. This is easier said than done because it has to be removed for the necessary weeding and, later, harvesting. It works but I hate it!
Another option is to sow resistant carrot varieties. There are a couple of these but they are ‘resistant’, not immune. The best way to use them is to also sow a a row of cheap, ordinary carrots as a sacrificial row, tempting any fly away from the resistant ones. Of course you don’t get much choice of variety either and you certainly can’t then grow yellow, white or purple carrots – of which, more later.
I would suggest that the easiest way to grow some carrots is in pots. Use containers at least 15cm deep, though you don’t need barrels to grow them, unless you are growing giants for exhibition. Fill with multipurpose compost, sow as usual, in rows or across the surface, water and wait. If you can lift the containers at least 60cm above the ground, you should not have carrot fly. Keep them watered, feed weekly with liquid fertiliser and you will have clean, easily prepared carrots. Stump-rooted or round carrots can even be grown in a window box.
We now know that the original carrots had white roots and it was the Dutch that spread orange carrots around the globe. But now we are experimenting more with other colours and white and yellow carrots are common. I find that these grow more easily than orange carrots and, in a mix, they are always the biggest. I can’t quite see the point of white carrots, especially as we are always being lectured about how coloured veg is good for us. Then there are purple carrots, some of which are purple all the way through and others that are orange inside. These must be good for us and are so full of pigment that they turn the water purple when cooked. Some of the old kinds have rather ‘hairy’ roots but if you try the F1s this will not be an issue. They are worth a try.
This may seem all rather negative but I am just being honest. There are few veg better than freshly pulled carrots – they taste so much more carrotty than shop carrots. You may be lucky to have light, sandy soil in a windswept spot that blows all the carrot fly into the sea. In which case carrots will be the ideal crop. Even where conditions are not perfect, grow a few as a treat – you will love them.
You cannot transplant carrots! If you do the roots will be bent at best and, at worst, the plants will bolt. You sometimes see pots or trays of carrot seedlings for sale. These will NOT make good carrots. Walk past them, smile, and leave them to someone else.