Get An Early Start With Carrots
By Nancy Pierson Farris, South Carolina
Carrots are one of the most versatile vegetables I grow in my garden. We plant them once a month through spring, and again after Labor Day. Except during summer’s intense heat, I harvest a continuous supply for salads or for cooking.
Since carrots will germinate in 45°F soil, I get an early start on my garden by sowing a short row of them in January, about 10 weeks before my last spring frost. I can expect harvest to begin in March. Small, crisp carrots fresh from the garden are a welcome addition to a spring salad!
Because feeder roots of carrots may plunge two feet below the surface, we begin by thoroughly working the soil. Before the year ends, we spread compost over the area, and dig it in. A few days before we intend to plant, we rotary till the rows again to loosen and mix the soil. Though I prepare my garden with organic materials such as rotted bedding from the goat stalls, or well-aged litter from the henhouse, I could use a 10-20-10 fertilizer at a rate of two ounces per ten feet of row. A higher nitrogen formula could result in much foliage and stunted, misshaped roots.
Pictures accompanying this article show the half-long variety, which I usually grow. In heavy soil like mine, with a high clay content, long carrot varieties don’t develop well. One suggestion: plant long carrots after early spring peas, because the peas’ strong root system opens the soil to a depth that allows long carrots to penetrate. On the other end of the spectrum, the very short or ball types such as Atlas (Parks Seeds) or Parisian (VT Bean Seed) will grow in shallow soil, or even in containers.
To add color to the carrot patch, I could grow Atomic Red. Purple Dragon might add some excitement to the garden.
Burpee offers a Kaleidoscope mix, which includes red, purple, yellow, and light green carrots. Carrot seeds are very small, and the sprouts are delicate and hard to see. To mark the rows, I first plant a few radish seeds in the shallow furrow, then plant the carrot seeds and cover with barely a quarter inch of soil. I then spread coarse mulch thinly over the row to hold moisture and prevent crusting of the surface. Within a week, I see the radishes! Pairs of small, round leaves scattered along the row. At least another week will pass before the delicate fringe of carrot foliage becomes visible. Soon after the carrots appear, radishes start to form roots and I can remove some of them, carefully, to use in salads. Radishes mature in just three weeks, leaving the space for the carrots.
I try to hand weed and thin the carrots from the time I can see the foliage. Since they are so delicate, weeds can quickly outgrow and smother them. Since seeds are so tiny, it is difficult to sow thinly enough to avoid discarding any by thinning. The first threadlike roots are good for nothing, but I often use the tops. They have a slightly peppery flavor and anything green is welcome in my early spring salad. Tops can also be snipped and tossed into soup. As the carrots begin to develop, I use the whole plant in salad or add it to vegetable soup. At this point, I aim to create a half-inch spacing of the carrots. As roots develop, I pull every other one as I need them, thus increasing the space for those that remain. When I pull a few carrots and find them mature, if we need that space for another we grab the spading fork. Working a few inches away from the row, Don loosens the dirt so I can easily pull the carrots. Planting short rows of carrots monthly, January through May, we have a steady supply and usually store them in the refrigerator. The few times I have an over-abundance of carrots, I prefer to can them the old-fashioned way. I wash, scrape, and slice them, then boil until they are soft enough to pack tightly into glass jars. I add water, and a quarter teaspoon of salt to each pint, place lids and rings, and process them for 30 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure.
Years ago, when I used a water bath canner, I processed carrots for two hours. If I have only a few extra carrots, I may freeze them. I find they are better after I cook them till tender, then cool and pack into freezer containers. I sometimes freeze carrots with mixed vegetables. These are handy during a rainy winter day when I want to make soup or pot roast. Carrots are one of most versatile vegetables I grow! They are also one of the least predictable. That is one reason I plant a short row every month. Vagaries of weather: Too much rain, or not enough; too much cold, or too much heat. All can affect the growth of carrots. One hungry rabbit can gobble up a whole row of carrots in one night.
We all know that when we plant a seed, we gamble on the outcome. To borrow an idea from an old country song: you gotta know when to plant ‘em; you gotta know how to tend, you gotta know when to accept your losses and hope for better luck in the next round!
So if your carrots (or whatever else you planted) meet with adversity, prepare another furrow, and make another planting. Next month, the weather may cooperate and the rabbit may stay away, and the seeds will produce a bumper crop! It happens to me every year.
Originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.