If you're a beginner interested in growing your own food, you're likely wondering which vegetables are easy to grow at home. Some of the people you ask will enthusiastically suggest growing carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) while others will tell you to avoid them like the plague. In truth, carrots aren't hard to grow. They do, however, require the right soil and need some weeding during the early stages to grow long and straight. If you get it wrong, you'll end up with tiny round carrots instead of long and lean ones. Armed with a bit of know-how, though, you can easily grow a crop of flavorful carrots much tastier than what you'll find in the grocery store. Carrots grown at home typically take between 70 to 80 days to mature, but some cultivars can take longer. The 'Autumn King' cultivar, for example, can stay in the ground for up to 120 days and tastes sweeter when left in the ground this long.
Carrot Growing Basics
Carrots grow best in cool climates, even though they were originally grown and cultivated in the Mediterranean area. They are a root crop, just like potatoes and turnips, and are ideally planted in cooler temperatures in the spring and then again in the fall.
Carrots are by nature a biennial plant, completing their life cycle in two years. During its first year, the carrot plant stores food in its root. In the second, it produces flowers and seeds. Most commercially cultivated carrots and those grown in home gardens never make it past their first year. Because it is the root of the plant that we eat, gardeners usually grow these vegetables as annuals and skip the flowering stage.
A Healthy Start
Plant your carrots as seeds and expect them to take about 10 to 12 days to germinate, though some varieties can take up to three weeks. To help your carrots grow as long as possible, till the soil and loosen it completely before planting. Remove any rocks, as well. Carrots grown in tight, compact soils stay short and are typically misshapen at harvest time. After the seeds germinate and the young plants reach about an inch in height, thin your crop so that plants have three inches of wiggle room between them. Thinning stops the plants from cannibalizing each other in their quest for water and soil nutrients. Carrots dislike competition from weeds as much as they do each other, so mulch young carrot patches and weed them diligently.
Like other vegetables, carrots benefit from proper fertilization. They're prone to branching out or forking when over fertilized, however, so resist the urge to feed them too much. Apply a balanced vegetable fertilizer to your crop five to six weeks after planting. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers like manure as these can burn carrots and ruin the crop. Give your carrots an inch of water per week as they grow. If you forget to water the plants and they dry out, reintroduce water a bit at a time over a few days. Soaking very dry carrots causes them to split.
Carrot Harvesting Tips
Carrot harvest times depend on both the carrot variety you've planted and your personal taste. Some people prefer the taste of younger carrots while others crave the full-bodied taste of a mature plant. Typically, however, carrots are best harvested when they reach at least 1/2 inch in diameter, which usually occurs between two to four months after planting. There's no need to pluck all your carrots from the ground at once, so harvest large carrots and leave smaller ones to plump up a few more days. Don't wait too long, though. If you planted your carrots in the spring, it's best to harvest them before summer's heat sets in. Carrots exposed to hot temperatures become fibrous and stringy.
If you have heavier soil or prefer short or round carrots that you can harvest quickly, try varieties in the Chanetnay category. 'Short 'N Sweet' carrots grow to only about four inches in length and reach maturity 68 days after planting. The 'Danvers Half Long' cultivar is also good in heavy soil and matures in as few as 66 days. Carrots of the 'Gold King Select' cultivar produce extremely well in tougher soils while the creamy flesh of the 'Lunar White' is ready to pull and eat in a mere 60 days.
More patient gardeners who yearn for longer carrots may enjoy most any of the cultivars found in the Nantes family. Popular Nantes cultivars include the 'Nelson Hybrid', 'Sweetness Hybrid' and 'Scarlet Nantes'. Long and sweet, carrots in the Nantes family more closely resemble those found in your local grocery store and reach about seven inches in length. These carrots can take 70 days or more to reach maturity, however.
A Quick History
The first known cultivation of carrots took place in the seventh century, in Afghanistan. These early carrots were grown as a medicine and had purple skin and yellow flesh. It wasn't until the 1600s that Dutch horticulturists developed a stubby variation of the present-day orange carrot, which was subsequently improved by a French horticulturist who used a common wildflower, Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), to develop a long, thick carrot, bright orange in color. That's the same type of carrot that's still the most popular variety today, ubiquitous in supermarkets and farmer's markets all over the world.
Thomas K. Arnold
Thomas K. Arnold is publisher and editorial director of "Home Media Magazine" and a regular contributor to "Variety." He is a former editorial writer for U-T San Diego. He also has written for "San Diego Magazine," "USA Today" and the Copley News Service. Arnold attended San Diego State University.