Whether you grow traditional orange carrots, or raise a rainbow of purple, red, white and red varieties, these crunchy, colorful veggies are fun to raise and good for you.
But they’re also tricky to grow. Carrots need deep, loose soil, and when they aren’t happy in the garden, their roots become stunted, twisted or forked.
One of the secrets to growing great carrots is giving them the right nutrients. Start by testing your soil with a purchased kit, or, if your county extension service office offers testing, send a soil sample from your garden. Most offices will give you instructions, but in general, you’ll need to collect some dry or slightly moist soil from several spots in the garden, digging from one inch deep to as much as 6 inches deep in each spot. Mix the soil in a bucket and send in only the requested amount—two cups is usually enough. Be sure to tell the extension agent what you want to grow, and allow a few weeks for the results to be processed.
Add the amendments your test indicates and work them in. Carrots love potassium, among other nutrients, so if your garden is lacking, work in some wood ash. Other common amendments include lime, manure or other organic matter and fertilizer. Stick to the amounts shown by your test; too much can do more harm than good.
Dig or till deeply to give these root crops room to develop. For varieties with long roots, work the soil 12 to 16 inches deep, or choose shorter, stubbier types. All carrots need soil that is free of weeds, grass, rocks, sticks and other debris.
Another tip for success: grow your carrots in a raised bed instead of the ground. If you keep your bed about 4 feet wide, you’ll be able to reach into it and avoid walking around your plants as they grow, which compacts the soil. In a raised bed, loosen the soil 8 or 9 inches deep, or as deep as you can go.
An ideal garden spot for carrots will also have well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8 and full sun for at least eight hours a day. Wait until the soil temperature is 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit to plant, or at least until the soil temperature stays above 60 degrees F.
Carrots dislike transplanting, so sow the seeds outdoors, about 1/8-inch deep, in rows spaced 15 inches apart. An easy planting tip: space the seeds along the ground and lightly rake the soil over them with your hand. They should make light contact with the soil, so pat them down gently, and keep them moist.
But watch out. If you have heavy rains, your soil may become compacted and crust over as it dries out, preventing the seeds from germinating. If the seeds don’t sprout in two or three weeks, sow again. You can also use an old gardener’s trick to keep track of your carrot seeds, and mix some radish seeds with them. The radish seeds will come up first to help you remember where you planted.
Once the seedlings are about an inch high, thin them to 2 to 3 inches, or as the seed packet indicates for your variety.
Don’t let your carrots become completely dry. Mulch with newspaper, weed block or even a light layer of grass clippings to help keep moisture in the soil and control weeds. When weeds appear, pull them by hand or cut them off at the soil line so you don’t disturb the carrots’ feeder roots.
Fertilize with a formula that promotes root growth, rather than one with a lot of nitrogen, which promotes foliage. A 5-10-10 formula with 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate and 10 percent potassium, is fine. Give the carrots about one inch of water a week.
Read your seed packet to estimate when the carrots are ready to harvest, or start pulling them when they’re finger-sized. You don’t have to pull them all at once. Leave some in the ground to stagger your supply of fresh veggies for the table.
Carrots to try in your garden:
- ‘Red-Cored Chantenay’ – Recommended for heavy or clay soils, these carrots grow about 6 inches long and are crisp and tender.
- ‘Scarlet Nantes’ – Flavorful and mild, this carrot grows to 16 inches. Harvest the roots while they’re immature for a sweet, tender flavor.
- ‘Short 'n Sweet‘ – Bred for poor soils, these 4-inch long, bright orange carrots can be grown in containers and mature in about 68 days.
- ‘Thumbelina’ – This All-America Winner is great for snacking and growing in containers. Harvest the carrots in about 70 days, or when they are about the size of golf balls.
- ‘Purple Dragon’ – This sweet, eye-catching carrot has a purple skin and a yellow-orange core. Shred it into slaws and salads to enjoy the colors.
- ‘SugarSnax’ – Disease-resistant ‘SugarSnax’ forms 9 to 10-inch tapered roots. They’re smooth and deep orange in color.