Carrots: Underground Honey
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Carrots are probably the biggest reason I grow my own vegetables. The difference in taste between home grown carrots and grocery store carrots is astronomical! Even bigger than tomatoes, in my opinion. They are also incredibly sweet (especially after a frost), hence the Irish nickname "underground honey". They are easy to grow, love our cold climate, take up very little room in the garden and store fantastically well so they can be used throughout the fall and winter. Plus, you can even eat the leaves (see the recipe for carrot top pesto below). All fantastic reasons to give this vegetable a go in your garden. The Easter bunny, Santa's reindeer and Bugs Bunny can't all be wrong!
The carrots we eat today are descended from wild carrots (Daucus carota sativus) that are native to Afghanistan. We have been cultivating and eating them for at least 1,200 years. Like many species in the Umbellifer family, they were originally grown for their seeds and leaves. The root finally caught on and travelled to Europe via the Mediterranean. And did you know that carrots were originally purple, not orange? That's right. Orange carrots were selected as a tribute to the House of Orange in the Netherlands (after they liberated the Dutch from Spanish rule) in the late 16th century. The colour has been popular ever since.
Why grow carrots?
We've all heard that carrots are good for your eyesight, right? That's due to the high amount of beta-carotene which our body converts to Vitamin A. Carrots are also rich in Vitamin C, Vitamins B6 and B3 (also known as Niacin) and fiber. They are a prebiotic (food for probiotics) and are chock full of antioxidants such as alpha-carotene, lutein (in orange and yellow carrots), lycopene (in red and purple carrots), polyacetylene and anthocyanin (in dark red and purple carrots). The bottom line? Carrots are really, really good for you! And you should definitely be growing (and eating) them.
Here's a fun fact: if you eat too many carrots your skin can take on a distinct orange hue. I have actually had this a few times in my youth. This is a condition known as carotenosis and is nothing to be worried about, it will fade in a day or two. It is, however, great for freaking out your friends :)
I really, really liked carrots as a kid (and still do), especially right from the garden. Sweet like candy! And, yes, using the garden hose to clean carrots and then rubbing them dry on the grass is 100% acceptable.
Carrots are a root vegetable. Depending on the variety, they can be a fairly long one. This means they will need quite deep, loose soil in order to grow their best. Ensure your garden bed has a minimum of 12" of loose, stone free soil before planting. Carrots grown in rocky or compacted soils will be twisted and misshapen (although they will still taste good). Carrots also grow best in full sun. That's a minimum of 6 hours per day. They will grow in partial shade if you absolutely must, but they will grow more slowly, so take that into account when designing your planting plan. Partial shade is between 4 and 6 hours of sun per day. Less than 4 hours? Look at planting greens instead.
Carrots are a cool season crop, which means they will take a bit of frost and will germinate at relatively cooler temperatures. They can be direct sown in the garden as soon as your soil can be worked (completely thawed and not sloppy wet). Here in the Calgary area, that is usually 2 to 4 weeks before our last frost date of May 23rd, so around the end of April. The seeds will germinate when the soil is at the right temperature for them (anywhere between 7 - 30 C). Seeds are protected from frost by the soil around them and seedlings are frost tolerant to about -2 C. Anything cooler than than, and you should throw a frost cloth over them until it warms up. Carrots really dislike having their roots disturbed, so it is best to stick with direct seeding. Transplanting rarely works out well.
Everyone grows carrots, so they must be easy to grow, right? Yes and no. If you follow a couple of guidelines, you will have no problems. The first key to growing carrots is to keep them consistently moist (not sopping wet) until they germinate. This can prove difficult, as they are sowed quite shallowly and the top layer of soil dries out quickly. In addition, carrot seeds take a significant amount of time to germinate. We are talking 14 to 21 days depending on temperatures and variety. That's a long time to keep those seeds moist! But you must! If they dry out before germinating, they may not grow at all. There are a couple of methods we can use to help keep them damp:
water your growing area very deeply prior to planting,
use a lightweight plastic row cover immediately after seeding to reduce evaporation (make sure it is vented or not too hot outside so you don't bake your seeds),
cover the soil with plywood or an old blanket and check daily to see if germination has begun (remove immediately once it has),
and don't forget to water as soon as the top of the soil begins to dry!
The biggest trick to growing carrots? Make sure the seeds are consistently moist until they germinate!
The second key to growing carrots is managing their very small seed size. They are tiny! It is almost impossible to pick up a single seed with just two fingers. There are a couple of strategies to make planting these tiny seeds easier. The first is to buy seeds imbedded in seed tape. These are strips of biodegradable paper with seeds glued onto them already perfectly spaced out. If you are growing in rows, this can be a huge time saver! Another alternative is to buy pelleted seed. These are seeds that are coated with a clay type substance that breaks down easily once wetted. This coating makes the seeds much larger and easier to handle. Keep in mind, that you will need even more water to penetrate this coating and moisten the seed inside. The final way to deal with tiny seeds is to use a mini hand seeder (on the right in the picture below). This device releases the seeds from a main chamber slowly, one at a time, when you tap the side. It takes a little practice, but works well once you get the hang of it. There is also a hand seeder that is a suction cup type version.
Carrot seeds will usually keep for only 3 years (if kept cool and dry in a dark place). After that, their germination rates will be significantly reduced. Even new seed has a relatively low germination rate compared to other vegetable seeds (usually around 60%). To counter this, I almost always plant two seeds in each hole (or at each spacing). I am going to be thinning them out anyways (see below) so this doesn't really create more work for me later and it ensures that I have the maximum amount of carrots in the space allocated to them. Plus, carrots seeds are usually cheap and come with tons to a package, so I don't feel bad about purchasing extras. Plant seeds 2" inches apart with rows 10" apart. If you are using square foot gardening, you can plant 16 seeds per square foot.
My favourite way of planting carrots is to use my seed stamp (see the article DIY Planting Stamp) to make 16 slight indentations in the soil in each square foot. I then use a mini-seeder to deliver 2 seeds in each indentation. I then cover the seeds with a light coating of potting mix. Why do I do it this way? Because the seeds are still in their indents, they do not get dislodged when I water. Plus, I use the excess soil around the indents to cover the shoulders of the carrots when they start protrude from the soil later on (see the Care section below).
How do you keep from having 5000 carrots all ready to be harvested at once? With succession planting of course. Divide up your carrot growing area into sections and sow one section every three weeks until mid summer. This will give you a continuous harvest right up until after the first frost.
No matter how hard you try, you will never get your seeds spaced perfectly when seeding them. Remember, those seeds are tiny! And that is why we need to thin them. Remove unwanted plants by cutting the tops at soil level with sharp, pointed nose scissors. Pulling them can damage the roots of surrounding plants. Start thinning plants to 1.5 - 4" apart when they are approximately 1" tall. Check with your seed package to confirm the exact spacing for your variety. Repeat throughout the season as necessary. Don't forget to eat your thinnings! Those are microgreens. Carrots that are too close together will result in twisted and forked carrots. Not bad tasting, just a little funny looking.
Carrots are good friends with almost all the other vegetables, but there are a few that are especially helpful and a couple you may want to avoid:
All of the allium family (onion, chives, leeks and garlic) as well as parsley, rosemary and sage are all great for repelling carrot rust flies (see the section on pests below).
Carrots are frequently planted with radishes, which germinate super fast, have shallow root systems and cover the soil, blocking out weeds. They are usually planted between rows of carrots and are harvested not long after the carrots germinate.
Carrots planted with tomatoes will have slightly reduced growth but will have improved flavour.
Carrots are thought to stimulate the growth of peas.
Other good companions include beans, brassicas, lettuce, peppers and pole beans.
Clover and alfalfa attract leafhoppers, which can carry a disease called Aster Yellows, so keep your carrots far away from these two if you can.
Other large rooted vegetables, such as parsnips and potatoes, are typically not good companions due to root competition.
Care and maintenance
Carrots welcome good compost and manure, as long as they are well aged. The excessive amount of nitrogen in fresher products will produce carrots with spindly, hairy roots and lush, bushy greens, so make sure anything you add is very well aged. Likewise, if you are adding fertilizer to your garden, ensure it does not have a high proportion of nitrogen. They respond better to a larger proportion of phosphorous and potassium, rather than nitrogen. Carrots also love vermicompost, so if you have some hanging around, your carrot patch is a great place to use it. Remember to keep your carrots well watered, even after they germinate. They prefer around 2.5 cm of moisture per week while actively growing.
Keeping your carrot bed weeded is another important chore. Young seedlings have very fragile roots and have a hard time competing for root space, water, and nutrients with weeds. As your carrots grow keep an eye on them. The shoulders of the root can push up and out of the soil, resulting in green growth around the very top. This can be an indication they are ready to pick, but if they are not quite ready to your taste, simply hill the soil up around the top of the roots whenever you see them protruding.
Carrots can be picked at almost any size: as baby roots, at full size (as indicated on the package) or even left to reach gigantic proportions. Note that there is a point where they can get too big. They can become woody and overly starchy if left in the soil for too long. That being said, there is a really good reason to wait before you harvest. Once carrots are exposed to a light frost, they begin to convert some of their starches to sugars. The result is extra sweet carrots! One of the major reasons why home grown can be so much better than store bought. I understand that you may need to pick and eat some before your first frost, but if you can wait to harvest most of them, it will be well worth it. Extra sugars in your carrots will also help them store longer. After your first frost is the time to start pulling the majority of them up and putting them into storage. Using a pitchfork to loosen the soil can be helpful in digging out carrots easily. Ensure you are a few inches away from the roots so you don't impale any of them. Impaled carrots won't do well in storage, but can still be washed and eaten promptly.
Carrots store best at 0 C and with high humidity (90-95%). You can do this either in the refrigerator or in a cold cellar. Remove the leaves and stems before storage. If you have a cold room or root cellar, allow to completely dry (1 to 2 days), lightly brush the majority of the dirt off the roots and keep in boxes layered with sand. Ensure your box has holes for air flow and that they are not kept near apples (the ethylene will give the carrots a bitter flavour). There is a bit of debate out there on whether you should be washing your carrots before storing in the refrigerator. I like to give them a quick scrub. I find that they retain their crispness better this way and last just as long. Don't scrub too hard, as you don't want to damage the skin and create any openings for rot to get in. Once washed, dry as well as you can on tea towels and package into plastic bags with 1 or 2 paper towels to absorb any excess moisture. Store in the fridge. I have had my carrots last up to 4 months this way. No matter which way you choose to store your carrots, periodically check on the, rotate them, remove any damaged ones and change the paper towel if needed.
The roots can also be blanched and frozen for longer term storage. Blanching helps retain their bright colour, texture and nutrient value. To do this, immerse them in boiling water for 5 minutes for large pieces or whole baby carrots, or 2 minutes for diced or matchstick cut carrots. Remove to an ice bath to completely cool. Drain well and pat dry as much as possible. Pack into ziptop bags and store in the freezer for up to 12 months.
Carrots are biennial plants. That means that they spend their first year developing a large root and their second year using that stored energy to produce flowers and seeds. They are also a zone 4 plant. This means that, although they will make it through the winter in some years, there will be years where it will just be too cold (especially with no snow cover). Here in Calgary, if you want to produce seeds, it is best to pull up the roots in fall, store them in a cold cellar over the winter (see the section on Storing above) and then replant them in the spring 6 - 18" apart (further apart than you had them the previous year). Some people cut off the bottom 1/3 of the root before replanting to make transplanting easier. If you do this, ensure you let the cut ends dry for a day so they don't rot when planted. The leaves and stems will regrow the second year and flower. Note that some carrot flowers can get quite tall (up to 5 feet) and may require staking. When the seed clusters have ripened (they will be brown) collect them in a paper bag. Bring the bag indoors and allow to dry for a week longer. Rub the seed heads between your hands to separate each seed (mericarp) from its capsule (the dual chambered schizocarp) and also to remove the awns (slightly spiny appendages that aid in seed dispersal). Store in a cool, dry and dark place until spring. Seeds will keep for 3 years before germination rates are considerably reduced. As with all fruits and vegetables, if you want plants that are true to seed, only collect seed from open pollinated varieties. Seeds from hybrids will produce a completely unknown result.
Carrots are self-fertile and are pollinated by insects, so make sure any row covers are removed once they begin to flower. Be aware that all carrots will cross pollinate with Queen Anne's lace (also called Caucus carota or wild carrot), a fairly common weed. If you are going to collect seeds, be sure there is none of this growing (or at least flowering) within 800 feet of your crop. And make sure individual varieties are equally spaced to prevent cross-pollination. An additional bonus to planting carrots in their second year, is that the flowers attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies, which are good at eating aphids, and parasitic wasps, which help take out caterpillars.
Pests And Diseases
Carrots are relatively pest and disease free. It's one of the things that makes them pretty easy to grow. There is really only one major pest (carrot rust fly) and one disease (aster yellows) that seriously affects them and these aren't an issue in most yards here in Calgary (knock on wood). I have yet to see any in my yard, thank goodness. Here they are, just in case, so that you can identify any issues if you see them.
Carrot rust fly
This is a small flying insect (Psila rosae) that lays eggs around the base of growing carrots. It is the larvae of the fly that are the problem though. Once they hatch (about 1 week after being laid), they chew into and through carrot roots, causing rust coloured tunnels and rot. This can change the flavour of the entire carrot and make it inedible if enough damage is done. Three generations can be birthed in a single year. The best defense against carrot rust fly is to prevent the fly from getting to the carrots. This means row covers and crop rotation. Put on covers once the seeds have germinated to prevent them from laying eggs. You can also seed your carrots a bit later in the year (after the beginning of June) to miss the majority of the fly's lifecycle. Carrot rust flies are also quite poor fliers. This means crop rotation, even if it is not very far away, makes a big difference. So does gardening on a balcony. If you are on the second floor or higher, these guys can't reach you. For extreme infestations, there are predatory nematodes specific to carrot rust flies that are very effective.
Not very common in our area, wireworms are the larvae of click beetles. They also chew holes through carrot roots. Interplanting with mustards can go a long way to discourage damage. There are also predatory nematodes specific to wireworms if necessary.
This is a bacterial disease that causes excessively hairy roots and poor flavour in carrots. The leaves may also start to turn red. This disease is mainly spread by leafhoppers. The only control is prevention, although there are varieties that are less prone to the disease. Row covers will prevent leafhoppers from reaching your carrots. It also helps to plant your carrots further away from plants that attract leafhoppers, such as clover and alfalfa.
Mould and Bacterial Rot
Not usually an issue in our dry climate, but if you do see indications of these, practice crop rotation and ensure you thin your plants to prevent overcrowding. Always make sure your carrots are as cool and dry as possible before storage.
There are an amazing number of carrot varieties that will work in our climate. They come in a range of colours from white, to yellow, to orange, to red, to purple, even almost black. You can even use those darkly coloured carrots as a dye! Sometimes their colour is just on the skin and sometimes it goes all the way through to the core. My youngest is the carrot aficionado in our family and he picks out two new varieties to try every year. This year we will plant 3 of our standard varieties (see below for recommendations) as well as Atomic Red Carrots, a new to us variety. We are still deciding our second new variety to try. I am a strong proponent of always trying at least one new thing in your garden every year, and we will never run out of new carrot varieties to try. Carrots are divided into four major groups based on shape:
Are almost cylindrical with a blunt end. They are are the fastest to mature, the sweetest of all the varieties, super crisp and the most adaptable to a variety of climates and soil types. These are the carrots I plant most often here in Calgary. The only downside, is that Nantes don't store as well as other varieties.
Recommended varieties: Scarlet Nantes (my standard, all purpose carrot), Napoli, Bolero, Yaya, Touchon, Nantes Coreless
Are the shortest and widest of all the varieties with a blunt tip. If you are gardening in containers, these are the ones you want to go with as they don't need quite the soil depth as the others. This is also the reason they are a good choice for heavy clay soils. Chantenay are great for juicing.
Recommended varieties: Paris market (ball shaped), Canada, New Kuroda (huge!)
6 to 8 inches long, these are conical shaped with a tapered point. They are the fastest to emerge and are well suited to more compacted soils. These carrots have the sturdiest foliage, making them the easiest to pull out of the ground by the stems. Danvers are usually best cooked, but they are also great for making juice.
Recommended varieties: Danvers
These are the carrots you most often see at the grocery store. They are long, thin and gently tapered to a point. You will need quite deep, loose soils to accommodate their length. They are often more fibrous and less sweet than other varieties.
Recommended varieties: Sugarsnax, Neptune, Mokum Baby Hybrid (baby)
Recommended coloured varieties:
Purple haze, Cosmic Purple, White Satin, Rainbow, (I'll let you know about Atomic Red).
In The Kitchen
Carrots are extremely versatile! They can be eaten raw, pickled, canned, dried, juiced, steamed, boiled, roasted, braised, sautéed, pureed and even deep fried (tempura anyone?). They are a classic member of mirepoix, the carrot, celery and onion mix that is the base of every French soup, sauce or stew ever created. Carrots are not only for savory dishes. They make many appearances in sweet baked goods as well. Add them to muffins, cakes, and pancakes for a healthy, tasty addition. And don't forget to check out some of my recipes featuring carrots below.
Asian Burgers & Bok Choi Salad (recipe coming soon)
Carrot Cake Jam (This recipe is from Bernardin and we make it every single year. It is awesome!)
Carrot Dip (recipe coming soon)
Carrot & Farro Salad (recipe coming soon)
Carrot Top Pesto (recipe coming soon)
Minestrone Soup (recipe coming soon)
Roasted Vegetables (recipe coming soon)
Oh, and if you have dogs, try not to let them see you digging up carrots. Many of them are carrot lovers, and they will quickly learn how to dig up their own once they see where carrots come from. Experience talking here.
Yummy gardening everyone!
West Coast Seeds (www.westcoastseeds.com) for everything seed starting, seed sales and timing charts, etc.
T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) Longstanding Manitoba company with a huge variety of seeds as well as trees, shrubs, perennials and gardening accessories.
Veseys Seeds (https://www.veseys.com/ca/)
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (https://www.rareseeds.com/) for specialty and hard to find heirloom seeds. Note this is an American company so check hardiness zones and days to maturity before selecting seeds
University of Saskatchewan, College of Agriculture and Bioresources (https://gardening.usask.ca/articles-growing-information/carrots.php)
Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening (https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/learn-how-to-grow-carrots-zmaz08aszgoe)
Seeds of Diversity Canada "How to Save Your Own Seeds" 2013, Waterloo, ON, Canada
Ulager, Jim "Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener" 2019, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
Healthline (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition) for information on carrot nutrition.