How to Grow Carrots

comments (5) March 26th, 2009

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A sweet harvest of full-size carrots is the reward for improving your soil with well-rotted organic matter.
A sweet harvest of full-size carrots is the reward for improving your soil with well-rotted organic matter.Click To Enlarge

A sweet harvest of full-size carrots is the reward for improving your soil with well-rotted organic matter.

Photo: Janet Jemmott

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With a coat or without—selecting your seed

Coated vs. uncoated carrot seed
  Coated seeds (at right) are easier to handle and easier to space than uncoated seeds (left), diminishing the need to thin plants later in the season.

After you determine which varieties to grow, you must decide if you want coated or naked seed. Carrot seeds are sometimes coated with a layer of bentonite clay (photo, p. 13). This makes them more evenly sized and helps to maintain uniform moisture around the seeds during germination. They may also be treated with fungi­cide. I have used coated seed (sometimes called pelleted) for several years and prefer it because it is easier to handle. It falls from my planter better and is easier to see when I want to check spacing.

Make your soil hospitable to carrots
What does it take to grow scrumptious carrots? Can anyone grow them, no matter what type of soil he or she has in the garden? I think so, as long as the weather is not too hot, not too wet, and not too dry. Ideally, carrots prefer a loose and deep silty loam, but there are enough varieties so that gardeners blessed with less than ideal soils can match carrots with their soil types. To find out which varieties of carrots do well in your area, check with other gardeners, local horticulture clubs, or your cooperative extension office.

Don’t despair if your soil is heavy. Heavy soils contain a priceless reserve of minerals but need more care to develop. The shortest route to improving this type of soil is to adjust the pH and add organic matter. Carrots are really enlarged taproots; their root system is both wide and deep, and it responds well to a properly prepared seedbed. Research suggests that mineral soils produce more nutritious and flavorful root vegetables. I know from experience that this is true.

When working the soil for carrots, you should aim for a clod-free, uniform blend. A rule of thumb is to work the soil to twice the depth of the carrot you will be growing. Work in copious amounts of thoroughly composted or rotted organic matter, then pull the soil up into knee-high beds or mounds.

Here’s what works for me. First, I break up the hardpan as far down as I can reach, either with a tractor or by hand with a tool known as a broad fork (popular among French intensive gardeners). Next, I spread soil amendments or fertilizers. Then I rototill the entire area as deeply as my tiller will go (about 10 inches).

Carrots need a fairly nutrient-rich growing environment, but don’t appear to be particular about the source of the food supply. My bias is for nonchemically fertilized growing. If you garden conventionally, apply N-P-K as recommended for your garden size.

  Seedbed preparation and planting
Turn the soil
1. To prepare your seedbed prior to planting, turn the soil and work in well-aged organic material.
 Make a raised area
2. Pull soil up from the edges of your proposed bed to make a raised area at least 2 feet wide.
 Plant the seeds
3. Mark rows that are 8 to 12 inches apart, depending on the expected size of the mature carrot. Cover the seed with 1/2 inch or less of soil.
 Use a row cover
4. Use a row cover to help maintain moisture, giving carrot seeds a better chance to germinate, and seedlings a more uniform climate in which to grow.
5. Water seeds through the row cover during their period of germination.

Organic growers can add sufficient nitrogen by growing cover crops. Organic sources of nitrogen, such as blood or alfalfa meal, hoof and horn meal, and bat guano can also be used. Don’t use fresh manure as a source of nitrogen or you’ll likely find your carrots are hairy or forked.

Carrots grow best in soil where the pH is between 5.5 and 7.0, and respond well to foliar fertilizers or to being side-dressed with granular fertilizers mid-season. Growing carrots in a rotation behind legumes or green manure can often reduce or eliminate the need for additional nitrogen, but test your soil to be certain.

Plant in beds to avoid compacting the soil
Because carrots do not grow well in compacted soil, plant them in raised beds. I make my tilled beds 2 to 4 feet wide and as long as I want. Using an Italian beet hoe, a stiff garden rake, or in a pinch, a simple hoe of the cement mixing type, I hill up the soil from both sides. I flatten the top, and rake it smooth. I complete the job by making shallow rows perpendicular to the length of the bed, spaced 8 to 12 inches apart, and then sprinkling in the seeds.

In the home garden, carrots are usually planted 1 to 3 inches apart, depending on the mature size of the carrots. Varieties bred specifically to produce baby carrots, such as ‘Thumbelina’ or ‘Partima’, are usually planted closer together: 1 to 2 inches apart in rows 8 to 10 inches apart.

Cover the carrot seed with no more than 1⁄2 inch of fine soil, and be prepared to water frequently. I use floating row covers to help keep the ground moist, which also seems to help my carrots germinate and grow more uniformly. Row cover provides a consistent microclimate.

Carrots are notoriously slow to germinate in cool soils, often taking as long as 21 days to show up. In my raised bed system, carrots regularly come up in about 14 days.

Pestiferous creatures are mostly underground
In most areas, carrots are not troubled by many above-ground pests, and row cover will keep carrot rust flies, leafhoppers, and flea beetles at bay. In the ground, however, carrots may be troubled by nematodes, root maggots, or cutworms.

As an organic grower, I have had very good success using beneficial nematodes (Steinernema carpocapsae and Heteror­hab­ditis) to control root maggots and cutworms. On the flip side, Nematrol nematocide will control most strains of harmful nematodes. If you know you have a problem with pest nematodes, there are several strategies you might try.

First, increase the levels of organic matter and humus in the soil to create a more hospitable environment for naturally occurring predators. Second, plan ahead. Certain plants exude chemicals from their roots that are toxic to nematodes; grow them the season prior to planting carrots. These include cowpeas, Sudan grass, canola, and oilseed radish. California poppies release nematocidal compounds after their first year in the ground, so if you have the space, plan them into the permanent landscaping of your garden.

Timing is the key to controlling weeds
Controlling weeds without herbicides can be difficult, but with planning this problem can be diminished. Timing is the key to nonchemical, pre-emergent weed control in carrots. By taking advantage of the fact that many annual weeds sprout earlier than carrots, you can actually cultivate over the carrots before they come up.

Mark your calendar on the day you plant the carrots. Seven days later, go out and rake the bed lightly with a leaf rake, perpendicular to the direction of the rows. This will kill approximately 90 percent of annual weeds without harming the majority of your carrots. This works because carrots send out their taproots first, so that by the time the carrot top has emerged from the soil, the root may be as long as 3 or 4 inches. It is anchored fairly well compared with most broad-leafed weeds with shallow, fibrous root systems.

On day 14, prepare to do the same thing, but go out early in the morning when the light hits the garden at an oblique angle. Check first to see if the carrots are coming up. Newly sprouted carrots look like grass—they have two thin, straight leaves—and they can tolerate light cultivation. If the carrots have sprouted, you can still use the rake exactly as you did the first time, but don’t press down too hard. This will kill those weeds that have germinated since the last time you cultivated, leaving the carrots to come up with no competition. Repeat this process of inspecting and cultivating every four days until the carrots are completely sprouted.

The timing of this activity is one of the most crucial steps in my spring gardening. When I get it right, I hardly notice weeding the carrots, but if I get behind early in the season, it seems that I can never catch up. Once the carrots are up and established, I use a hand hoe or a wheel hoe once a week to cultivate between the rows.

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Comments (5)

Dallinlarsen555 writes: awesome
Posted: 12:52 pm on October 6th
matthewtweedie writes: Superb
Posted: 12:15 am on September 30th
MiriamBush writes: Red carrots are great for health
Posted: 4:07 am on January 29th
TylerWint writes: Its my favourite dish
Posted: 12:52 am on November 30th
WillowMchenry writes: Informative post...I like it!!
Posted: 12:08 am on November 14th
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