The first carrots were likely domesticated from a thin white root in modern-day Afghanistan just over 1,000 years ago. As domesticated vegetables go, carrots are relatively new to the scene. Early domesticated carrots were purple and yellow according to historical records. Over time orange carrots came into fashion and even became the namesake for the orange and yellow pigment in all vegetables—beta-carotene.
There are a handful of vegetables that are widely recognized for having better flavor when grown at home than those from the store—notably tomatoes—but I would argue that carrots are right up there with them.
Most commercial carrot varieties are bred for long shelf-life and durability, not flavor. When growing carrots at home you can choose heirloom varieties that have higher sugar content and deeper flavor than those from the store. Additionally, leaving your carrots in the ground until the weather cools off in the winter causes them to increase their sugar content which makes them noticeably sweeter.
The two primary types of carrots are Western Carotene carrots which are often orange or yellow and Eastern Anthocyanin carrots which are often black or deep purple. “Rainbow mixes” of carrots are common at farmer’s markets, and these are typically a mix of the two types.
In our gardens, we primarily grow Western carrots. Our go-to varieties are Yaya and Danvers. Yaya is bred for sweetness but doesn’t store well, so we eat those first, and the Danvers are better for storage, so we save those to eat through the winter.
Carrots are very cold-hardy and can be planted early in the spring for a summer harvest or late summer for a fall or winter harvest. Make sure that the bed where you plan to sow your carrots has access to full sun (at least 6 hours a day) in order for them to develop a substantial root.
Because carrots have a tap root, they need to be direct-seeded in the garden rather than started indoors and transplanted. To direct-seed your carrots, draw lines in the soil about a half-inch deep and sprinkle in the seeds aiming for about 1-inch spacing. Loose sandy-loam soil is best for the quintessential long, straight carrots. Where we live, the soil is mostly Appalachian Mountain clay, so we grow our carrots in amended raised beds with plenty of compost.
One area where carrots can be very finicky is in their initial sprouting or germination. This is especially true when they are planted in warm weather because the slightest bit of dry soil can prevent germination. The best way to remedy this is to cover the patch where you seeded carrots with a sheet of soaked cardboard or a wet cloth. Check on your carrots every few days by lifting the cardboard or cloth and as soon as you see any of the carrots sprouting, uncover them so they can access the sunlight. Keep in mind that this process can take up to two weeks.
Once your carrots have germinated, thin out any spots where the plants are growing closer than 1 to 2 inches apart. This will reduce interplant competition and result in larger carrots. Keep your carrots well-watered, especially in hot weather, and consider using some shade cloth to keep them cool if temperatures are regularly over 90 degrees.
Carrots are generally very pest free, but there are a couple of animals that can cause huge problems if they have access to your garden. As many of us know from childhood cartoons, rabbits love carrots. To keep them out, I recommend putting some kind of fencing around your entire garden. If that’s not an option, you’ll definitely want to at least surround your carrot patch with some kind of barrier. Groundhogs and other veggie-eating critters can also be an issue, but rabbit fencing or chicken wire will keep them out as well.
As your carrots near harvest time, you’ll begin to see their “shoulders” pushing up out of the soil surface. Sometimes this can be deceiving so I like to brush away a little bit of soil around the top of the carrot to make sure it’s at our preferred thickness all the way down before pulling.
If you planted carrots in the spring and are harvesting them in the early summer, harvest as soon as they reach your preferred size. If you planted carrots in the late summer for a fall or winter harvest, you can actually leave them in the ground through the winter and use them as needed. As I mentioned earlier, carrots increase their sugar content to protect their cells from the cold so as the winter goes on your carrots will get sweeter and sweeter.
Once harvested, carrots will last for weeks to months depending on whether they are a storage variety or not. A cool, humid place in your home like a garage or basement is best to store them. If you have a root cellar—I assume you know how to grow carrots and have already stopped reading this—but if not that would be an ideal place to store them as well. Check out Wade Truong’s Bánh Mì recipe for some inspiration on how to use your first carrot harvest!