Growing your own carrots opens you up to a whole new world of carrot-ey flavors and colors. The carrots we buy from the supermarket are, like most supermarket produce, chosen for their uniform appearance and ability to be shipped long distances. And those "baby carrots?" They're nothing more than large carrots that have been peeled and cut into smaller pieces!
Forgo the bland and the poseurs and grow your own carrots instead.
You can decide whether to grow full-size carrots or harvest them young for real baby carrots. You can grow the typical orange, as well as red, purple, and yellow. Choose from typical "carrot-shaped" carrots, as well as round ones, little stubby shapes, and long, extra-thin varieties. Part of the fun of growing carrots is trying the different varieties available to you.
Choosing a Variety
Choosing a variety to grow may be as simple as opening a seed catalog and picking the most interesting-looking one. And that's a great way to go! But if you have special conditions, here are a few suggestions for you:
Clay soil: If you're trying to plant carrots in clay, you'll do best to choose shorter, thicker varieties. These are less likely to get deformed trying to fight their way through heavy soil. Consider round varieties, such as 'Chantenay Red Core,' 'Pariesenne,' 'Tonda di Parigi,' and 'Touchon.'
Growing in containers: If you are growing your carrot crop in containers, try any of the varieties listed in the section above (since they all form fairly short carrots and work well in most container sizes.) Of course, if you want to grow full-size carrots in a container, you can do that, too -- just be sure that your container is at least a few inches deeper than the mature length of the carrot variety you want to grow.
Also be sure that the container has plenty of drainage so your carrots don't rot.
How to Grow Organic Carrots
1. Prepare the Soil.
Carrots need loose soil to grow well. If you have clay soil, stick with the varieties mentioned above. No matter which type of soil you have, it's a good idea to loosen the soil to about one foot deep, incorporating compost to help lighten the soil even more. Remove any rocks or hard clods of soil. Carrots grow best at a near-neutral pH, so if you have acidic soil, add lime to lower the acidity level. Don't add too much nitrogen-based fertilizer; this results in cracked, deformed carrots.
2. Sow the Seeds.
Direct sow your seed, either in the garden or a container, as early as three weeks before your last spring frost date. Sow the tiny seeds on top of the soil, barely covering (or simply leaving them on top of the soil). Keep the seeds moist, and add mulch as soon as they have germinated to maintain soil moisture. If you planted thickly, thin the seedlings to the directions on your seed packet.
To keep a continuous harvest going, sow a new crop of carrots every two to three weeks throughout the growing season, sowing a final crop about one month before your first fall frost date. Germination can be somewhat erratic, so be patient and be sure that you're not letting the soil dry out.
3. Wait and Monitor.
Most carrots take from two to four months to mature. During this time, keep the soil moist but not wet, mulch to retain soil moisture, and feed with fish emulsion when the greens are about three inches tall. That's all they'll need, provided you added compost when you prepared the soil. A rich diet only results in deformed carrots.
During this time, monitor closely for pests. Whether it's rabbits munching your carrot crop or carrot fly, the sooner you recognize the problem and deal with it, the better!
Once your carrots are ready, harvest them by pulling them from the soil. The best way to do this is to grasp the top of the carrot itself (rather than the tops, which often break off) and give them a good tug. If this doesn't work (as is sometimes the case in clay soils) use a narrow trowel or dandelion digger to pry the carrots out of the ground. Cut the green tops off immediately -- they cause the carrot to dry out and shrivel if left on too long -- and store them in the crisper of your refrigerator until you're ready to use them. If you're going for long-term storage, carrots store very well in a plastic container of slightly damp soil in your refrigerator or in an unheated garage or porch.
Carrots are easy to grow and oh-so-satisfying in their healthful, colorful, crunchy way. I suggest planting more than you think you'll need. Trust me -- once you try a homegrown carrot, you'll never want to go back to cellophane wrapped carrots again!