Food Garden: Carrots

Food Garden: Carrots

Carrots are packed full of healthy vitamins and minerals, including beta-carotene, an antioxidant that produces Vitamin A and is linked to improved lung health, cognitive ability, and can help to reduce macular degeneration, an age-related disease that causes a loss of vision. So, carrots really are an amazing vegetable that gives you a healthy boost for a vegan diet!

Get the soil conditions correct and carrots are one of the easiest vegetables to grow in the cooler climates. Incorrect soil conditions lead to misshapen carrots - these may well cause a chuckle when dug up, but they are not so well appreciated at cooking time! 

Carrots are rich in vitamin A, calcium and trace elements and a good source of fibre. Maincrop varieties can be stored for up to three months making it possible to have a nearly year-round supply.

Preparing the seeds

Carrots require an open, sunny site and fertile well-drained soil. If your soil is stony, shallow or heavy clay, you may end up with stunted or forked carrots, so try short-rooted types. These also suit containers.

Early cultivars can be sown in February or March under cloches or with similar protection. The main outdoor sowing season is from April to early July.  Seed packets will state whether the cultivar is an early or maincrop type. Sow 1cm (½in) deep in rows 15cm-30cm (6-12in) apart. By sowing thinly you can avoid thinning out. Aim for plants 5-7.5cm (2-3in) apart. Thin if needed at the seedling stage.

Tending during growth

Keep weeds down in the early stages. Once carrots are established, their leafy tops will block out sunlight to annual weeds. Carrots like the heat and will need little water. However, if the foliage starts to wilt, water thoroughly every 10-14 days to keep the ground damp. But beware overloading dry soil with too much water – it can cause the vegetables to split.

Root fly is one of the most persistent and annoying pests you'll encounter when growing carrots. The flies little white maggots burrow into the flesh of your carrots making them unattractive and prone to rot. It is impossible to get rid of but there's a lot you can do to avoid it.

Prevention is the best cure, and you should sow thinly and avoid crushing the foliage as you thin out seedlings or hand weed. You can surround your carrots with 60cm (2ft) high barriers made of clear polythene which will exclude the low-flying female flies or cover the plants with horticultural fleece, such as Enviromesh.

Harvesting

Early carrots don't store well and are at their tastiest when just harvested. The problem is the carrot fly will be attracted by the smell so you'll need to be careful. If you haven't done so already now is the time to get a micromesh cover. Keep the cover over the carrots, only removing it to harvest. Make sure you replace it after picking and don't leave any carrot foliage lying around.

Maincrop carrots are suitable for storage and can be harvested all at once if you wish. As with most things, however, the flavour is better when freshly picked. Do be careful about the dreaded root fly but if you use an enviromesh cover you should be fine.

If you live in a wet area you are better off lifting all your carrots or they may rot in the ground over winter.

As carrots should have a loose sandy soil they are usually very easy to harvest, just grab the tops and pull gently. A garden fork or trowel can be used to loosen the soil around the carrots if required. If the green foliage breaks off, don't worry, just dig the carrots up. If you have a heavier soil you should fork the roots up to avoid breaking them.

Storage

If there are too many carrots to eat at any one time they can be placed in a box of slightly moist peat or sand and placed in a cool, frost-free, dark place for storage. They should keep for a couple of months in these conditions. When harvesting carrots for storage you need to be picky about quality control. 

Any damaged roots need to be used in the kitchen or thrown away as they will rot quicker and may spread to the rest. Cut off all the leaves about half an inch above the root and place the carrots in a box of moist sand in a dry, frost-free shed. Don't let the roots touch to prevent any rotten ones infecting the guy next door. They should keep in this way until March.


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