Orange carrots are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to think that they have always been the norm, yet they are actually the Johnny-come-lately’s of the carrot world. White and purple are really the old timers.
One of the side-effects of today’s increased interest in vegetable gardening is the resurgence of heirloom varieties of all sorts of produce. Sure, some may take longer to mature, or make funky shaped fruits, but the benefit comes from that vast diversity that gardener’s now have to play with.
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
The original forms of carrots were actually purple and white, with yellow believed to be a later mutation that was later hybridized a few centuries ago into the orange roots we see today. Those became more popular due to their sweeter taste, lack of pigments that leached out into other ingredients, and tendency to grow a straighter root.
We now know those red and purple pigments offer a great array of nutrients and health benefits, and so I gladly plant as many colors of these taproot vegetables as I can. Thankfully, it’s also easy to do!
Carrots are technically a cool weather crop, but if properly supported, they will grow throughout hot summers, too. In my zone 9 garden, I plant them in mid-fall and allow them to over winter. Once spring starts they will have had a head start on growth and will be ready for an earlier harvest. They can also be sown in early spring, too. Just don’t wait until summer heat sets in as the seeds will not germinate well. If you still have some in the ground during the summer, be sure to have them in a location that gets either morning or afternoon shade and have mulch on the soil to keep it cool and moist.
Using a stick or your finger, dig a shallow (1/2 inch deep at the most) trench in very loose soil. Carrots will not grow well in dense soil so you may need to add lots of compost and sandy substrate to give your carrots an easier time to form deep taproots. If planting more than one row, space rows about 6 inches apart.
Sprinkle your seeds as evenly as possible along the trench, aiming for about a 1/4 inch spacing. Don’t worry if they are too bunched up, as there are a couple of ways to thin them as they grow. Push the soil from the sides of your little trench over the seeds and then water them in. Use a watering can with a sprinkle head or a hose with a gentle sprinkle setting so as not to gauge the seeds back out of the soil.
Carrots will not germinate well if the soil is allow to dry out too much, and will not develop good roots if the soil gets crusty and hard due to lack of water. You will want to loosely cover the surface of your carrot bed with mulch like straw or pine needles if it is likely to dry out between watering.
Watch for birds and pests like slugs or snails, as they will find your seedlings tasty. If you have problems with things like moles or rabbits, you are going to need to build raised beds that are protected at the bottom with lots of hard wire mesh, as well as fenced off. I thankfully don’t have that problem (yet?).
You will eventually need to thin your seedlings. You can pinch them out when they reach a few inches high to a spacing of at least 2-3 inches, or you can be greedy like me and wait a while. I like to wait until the baby carrots are at small eating size, and then thin them out bit by bit. I find the largest of the babies to pull out, and leave the smallest behind to continue to grow. This allows me to extend my harvest throughout the summer and into fall. The carrots left behind may grow as large as they would have if they had been thinned earlier, but I like having the stretched out harvest in exchange. It’s up to you!
Harvesting carrots can be a little tricky. Make sure the soil is damp, grasp them at the base of the greens, give the carrot a little wiggle to help loosen it from the soil, and pull up straight. It may not work, even with the best of techniques. You may then need to dig around the carrot with your fingers and grab the top to get it out. If you are using my thinning and harvesting method, you will need to push the soil into the holes left behind so that the remaining carrots aren’t exposed. Give the carrot bed a sprinkling of water to help push the soil into the holes, as well.
- Biennial: grown as annual
- Height: up to 1-2 feet
- Width: up to 1 foot
- Sun: full sun, or part shade in warm weather
- Water: keep soil moist, but not soggy
- Soil pH: 6.5 – 7.5
- Soil type: loose, amend with organic material if soil is either very sandy or heavy clay
- Key nutrients: balanced
- Planting time: zones 8+ in early fall or early spring