Carrots are a fantastically versatile food. We all know how delicious they are eaten fresh in salads or as a healthy snack. They can also be roasted, stir-fried and steamed – and what would a cottage pie be without carrots?
Read on to find out how to grow your own carrots and start to add your own home-grown healthy produce to your next mealtime.
All about carrots
The carrot (Daucus carota) has been around for quite a while. In fact, we’ve been growing carrots to eat since at least the 16th century. Originally, carrots were purple or yellow-skinned, and orange carrots only appeared around the 17th century.
The orange colour, which comes from a pigment called beta-carotene, is converted by our bodies into vitamin A which helps boost our vision and immune systems. Tasty and healthy – what more could you ask from a vegetable?
When to plant carrots
When to plant carrots depends on the type of carrot you’re planting. Carrots are divided into short- and long-rooted types, and also into early and maincrop varieties.
Early carrots are usually sown in early spring and harvested in summer, taking around 12 weeks to mature. Maincrop varieties are sown from late spring. They take around 16 weeks to mature and are harvested in late summer and autumn.
Short-rooted carrots are less fussy than long-rooted, growing happily in heavy or shallow soils and even in containers. Long-rooted carrots are more particular about their growing conditions, needing deep, light, stone-free soils to grow well.
Here are a few carrot varieties to look for:
- Carrot ‘Nantes 2’ – early variety, with medium-length roots
- Carrot ‘Tendersnax’ – early, long-rooted variety, very sweet and juicy
- Carrot ‘Caracas’ – early short-rooted variety, good for growing containers and in heavy soils
- Carrot ‘Parmex’ – early variety with very short, round roots, good for containers
- Carrot ‘Autumn King 2’ – maincrop long-rooted variety
- Carrot ‘Flyaway’ – maincrop long-rooted variety with some resistance to carrot fly
Your essential carrot planting equipment list
To grow carrots in your garden, you will need:
- Hand trowel or fork
- Garden spade or fork
- Carrot seeds
- Netting and stakes
- Compost such as Miracle-Gro Performance Organics Fruit & Veg compost
How to plant and grow carrots
Carrots grow best in deep, light, well-drained soil in a sunny position. Like most plants with long tap roots, carrots don’t like being moved, so sow them directly outside in the beds where they are to grow.
- Ideally, prepare the ground in autumn ready for planting carrots in spring. This allows the soil to rest over winter. Carrots don’t like rich soils, so don’t add any manure to the soil, but do dig in plenty of compost to improve soil structure and drainage.
- Sow early carrots from March to May, under cloches or fleece to protect the seedlings from frost. Sow maincrop carrots from May onwards.
- Before sowing, dig the soil over, remove any stones and rake level, so that the surface has a fine, crumbly texture.
- Carrots are sown in shallow furrows in the soil, called drills. To make a drill, use the point of a trowel or hand fork to draw a line in the soil, about 1cm (0.5in) deep. Space drills 15cm (6in) apart.
- Sow carrot seeds thinly 5cm apart in the drills. Cover lightly with soil and water well.
- Once seedlings have grown to about 10cm (4in) tall, thin them out by pulling out some seedlings so that the remainder are around 8cm (3in) apart. Take care not to attract carrot fly – see below for details on how to protect crops against this pest.
Crucial carrot care for a great crop
For a good carrot crop, follow these tips:
- Keep beds clear of weeds.
- Water regularly in dry periods.
- Protect against carrot fly. This is the most important part of caring for carrots. Adult carrot flies lay eggs in the soil around carrots. When the larvae hatch, they burrow into the carrots and feed on them, leaving a network of holes and tunnels inside the roots and damaging the crop. Because the damage is underground, it’s often not discovered until the carrots are harvested. Make sure you lookout for leaves turning red-brown as this is a sign that carrot fly larvae have arrived. There isn’t much you can do once your carrots have been attacked, so protect your crop early on.
How to protect carrots against carrot fly
Follow these key steps for early carrot protection:
- Surround beds with a netting or polythene barrier at least 60cm (24in) high. This deters the adult flies, which usually don’t fly higher than 50cm (20in). For extra protection, drape netting over the bed, supported by hoops or stakes to keep it off the plants.
- Take precautions when thinning so as not to attract carrot flies. The adult flies can pick up the scent of crushed carrot leaves from a considerable distance. To reduce the risk, thin carrot seedlings on still, cloudy days, in the evenings when the flies are less active. Bury or burn discarded seedlings immediately, and water the ground afterwards to get rid of any scent.
When to harvest carrots
Carrots are usually ready to be harvested 12-16 weeks after sowing. The simplest way to decide when to start harvesting carrots is to pull one up and see whether it is big enough. Don’t leave carrots to grow too big, though, as this will reduce their flavour.
If your carrots are difficult to pull up by hand, use a fork to gently lift them, taking care not to damage them.
How to store carrots
Autumn-harvested carrots should store well for up to four months. Choose carrots in good condition, brush off any loose soil and cut off the leaves. Place the carrots in layers in a box filled with damp sand, and store somewhere cool and dark. Check periodically and remove any carrots that show signs of rotting.
Start sowing now, and you’ll be enjoying your own supply of delicious home-grown carrots for months on end.