Rachel Vogan sets her sights on planting new-season carrots and shares her tips for success.
I challenge you to name a vegetable that is more versatile than the carrot? What other vegetable can be juiced? Not to mention grated, sliced and diced into a variety of salads and slaws, or roasted, boiled, steamed, stir-fried and sautéed, jammed into a sandwich or tucked into your pocket? Bugs Bunny swore by them and so do I.
When and where to plant
Carrots require full sun for the best results. This could be morning sun or afternoon sun, with four to six hours per day being ideal. The trick to growing long, straight carrots is soil texture. The soil has to be loose and friable, like a fine crumb or dry scone dough; anything that has stones, lumps or clods in it is going to limit the carrots’ ability to bury themselves easily into the soil. The roots are soft and delicate as they develop.
Before sowing seeds, add a generous amount of well-rotted compost to the soil. If the compost is a little lumpy, sift it to remove the lumps. Sheep pellets are brilliant, however, these need to be worked in and watered well prior to planting, to get them to break down. Ideally, prepare the carrot bed one weekend and sow the seeds the next.
If you choose to go down the planter route, carrots are happy as long as the container is deep enough, i.e. at least 20-30cm. Fill the tub with a mixture of vegetable mix and seed-raising mix. The seed-raising mix is lovely and fine, and provides the perfect base for healthy carrots. Vegetable fertiliser should be blended in prior to planting, or if you forget, you can use liquid fertiliser and drench your crop once a week with Seasol, worm wee or something similar.
Carrots can be sown at anytime, except in winter, when the soil is too cold. In the garden, mark out a shallow furrow, 2cm deep, and scatter seeds evenly along the row, aiming to have a little space between each seed. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, as the seeds are so fine and can readily fall out in clumps. If this happens, use a kitchen fork to spread them out – I always have
one in the garden shed for when I get a bit heavy-handed. Lightly cover the seeds with soil and sprinkle with water. Keep soil moist while seeds are germinating, and seedlings will appear in two to three weeks.
Once seedlings are finger-length, and the first true ferny leaves are obvious, thin out the excess seedlings to allow a one to two finger space (2-3cm), between each plant. This is a vital step and will underpin the eventual success of your crop. It can feel rather mean, but if you want ‘lovely long straight limbs’, you need to cull a few to reach your goal. If left to their own devices, the carrots overcrowd each other, run out of food and water, and never flourish.
Pull carrots when they are ready. If they don’t readily ease out of the soil, use a fork to gently lift them from below, rather than risk pulling off their tops/heads and leaving the root in the ground. Watering the soil before planting also makes pulling easier. When to harvest is totally up to you; baby carrots are always so sweet and tempting. Total crop time is around three months from sowing to harvest, so to ensure you never run out of carrots, sow a new batch every four to six weeks.
The go-to, traditional, long-tapered carrot varieties include ‘Topweight’, with a brilliant flavour and a strong top, which make it easy to harvest, it’s a reliable campaigner that suits all regions; ‘Manchester table’, a mid-length variety with slightly rounded tips; and ‘Early Chantenay’, which has short stumpy roots and is favoured for its early maturity. Coloured carrots are popular, the flavour is generally the same and they add a brilliant visual element to cooking. ‘Purple Dragon’ is a widely available purple one and ‘Yellow Solar’ has mid-length, sunny-yellow, sweet roots. ‘White Belgium’ is a very old heirloom variety, dating back to the 15th century, and it is well worth growing in colder regions as it holds in the ground well without deteriorating in flavour.
Children and carrots
Carrots are a great crop for kids, and even simple ideas like growing them in a kitchen bucket can get them started. You can get kids to decorate the bucket, poke some holes in it for drainage, fill it with vegetable mix then sow some seeds, or plant a few of the marble-shaped ‘Roly Poly’ carrot seedlings, which are in the shops, and watch them grow.
Event manager and mother of two, Gwen Macready has always found carrots a challenge with her kids, until she started grating them on top of pizza, now the family’s go-to pizza toppings include grated carrot every time.
Ever had carrots with random shapes and twisted roots? It’s a common problem due to the soil not being loose and friable enough for the roots to easily penetrate. This is a real issue in stony and heavy soils. Dig over soils until they are loose and friable, and blend in peat or well-rotted fine compost before sowing. If the soil is still lumpy, you may need to sift it.