Perhaps not quite for the beginner, carrots are difficult enough to grow and require a deep, light, stone free, fertile soil to do well. But if you get the soil right, you will be rewarded with a crunchy, sweet and flavoursome crop which will store well. Two or three well-timed sowings of carrots should see you self-sufficient all year round in this classic stockpot vegetable (which is full of vitamin A). You can also try out lots of different varieties of carrots (generally speaking such variety is not on offer in supermarkets). We generally associate carrots with the colour orange, when in fact you can grow carrots of other colours too – before the 1700s most carrots were purple or white in colour (the orange carrot was developed relatively recently to honour the Royal House of Orange in Holland).
Carrots are best sown direct in the soil as they do not transplant well. Choose an open, sunny space in your veggie patch. Never add fresh manure when sowing carrots as it will cause them to fork, and encourage leafy growth (rather than root growth, which is what you’re really after!). You can however add well rotted manure the previous autumn to the area where you will grow carrots. Dig the bed well during the autumn to make sure there is at least a foot of good friable soil – compacted soil equals stunted carrots. Apply a general purpose organic fertiliser (such as chicken manure pellets) about two weeks before sowing.
Carrot seeds are tiny so this is one situation where you will really need to get the seed bed to a “fine tilth” – if you don’t, the seeds can drop down in between the clumps of soil and they will then be too deep to germinate. From mid April (or March under a cloche), sow thinly at 1cm deep in rows 15-20cm apart. Keep the seed bed moist to encourage germination. Carrots are slow to germinate so don’t be alarmed if nothing seems to be happening! It could take 2-3 weeks. Thin to about 5cm when the seedlings are large enough to handle. Remove weeds carefully. Sow maincrop for storage in June. You can also sow in August for a tender winter crop, covering them with cloches after October.
Carrots dislike competition from weeds so keep the bed weed free – use a hoe along the rows and hand-weed around the carrots. Once the plants get established the leaves provide a thick canopy which will keep weeds away. Carrots don’t need a lot of watering, but in very dry weather water every two to three weeks.
Baby carrots will be ready about 7 weeks after sowing, and you can leave the rest behind to grow more (maincrop varieties take about 11 weeks). Lift by hand, or ease out with a fork carefully if ground is hard. Lift carrots rather than leaving them in the ground to grow too large – they are not too tasty when very big. Lift maincrop carrots in October and store in boxes of sand – they can be left in the soil if growth has stopped but they will be affected by frost. Before storing remove the foliage, leaving a 5cm stump on the carrot.
If blight is the bogeyman for spuds, then the carrot root fly is the same for carrots – this menace lays eggs in the soil around the carrots, and the little maggots tunnel in to roots which then rot. The main work involved in growing carrots therefore is to keep the carrot root fly away from your carrots – an effective way to do this is to cover the bed completely with bionet (this allows air, rain and sunlight in but not the carrot fly) or to put a 60cm barrier of fine mesh around the entire carrot bed. Be careful when thinning – the fly is attracted to the scent of the broken foliage. Remove all thinnings from the area and destroy. Some believe that intercropping with onions deters the fly as the smell of onions masks the smell of carrots (other hoot with derision at the idea). A solution of nettle, comfrey or garlic spray can be applied fortnightly to the foliage to disguise the smell of the carrot foliage from the fly.
The main thing to watch out for with failed germination is seed falling down between clumps of soil and therefore being too deep to germinate. This is why a fine tilth is so important, an even seed bed ensures the seed stays at the right depth.
Carrots go green if exposed to the light so cover any exposed tops with soil.
Some have reported success with sowing carrots in toilet roll inserts, the seed is sown indoors or under cover in an insert full of compost and then when the seedlings have developed, you plant the whole thing (insert and all) in to a hole in the ground. Using this method you avoid tampering with the root. If you want prize carrots, you can also try making a v-shaped hole in the soil with a dibber (to a depth of 6 inches or so), fill it with potting compost and sow the seed on top. This is very effective, but also very time-consuming.
If your soil is poor or shallow, try growing the stump-rooted Chantenay variety.
We want to see what you growing and the green spaces you’re exploring – inspire us and the community, tag us on social media using #GrowWithJohn2021!