Carrots: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Growing, Storing, and Cooking

Container Carrots
Container-Grown Carrots

Carrots are a great addition to the home garden. They’re nutritious, tastier than store-bought carrots, low-maintenance to grow, quick to mature, and tough enough to withstand cold temperatures. They’re also very productive because they can be grown relatively close together, and they can be stored for longer than many other vegetables.

When thinking of carrots, most people picture the standard orange, tapering type, but carrots are available in a variety of hues, ranging from deep purples and reds to pale yellows and whites, and in many shapes and sizes, including long, medium, short, finger, and ball-shaped (the long variety are the ones most commonly found in supermarkets). In addition, you can select varieties for flavour characteristics (such as added sweetness), pest-resistance, ability to thrive in particular climates, or higher beta-carotene content.

Because they’re colourful, quick-growing, and fun to harvest, carrots are a great choice for children’s gardens. However, the seeds are tiny, so it may be better to purchase pelleted seeds or seeds attached to seed tape to make them easier to handle when gardening with kids.

What are the health benefits of carrots?

Carrots in Orange and Purple
Orange and Purple Carrots

Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A, a potent antioxidant, and they also provide potassium, vitamins B, C, E, and K, and calcium pectate, a type of fiber that can help to lower cholesterol. Carrot varieties that produce deep, dark colours provide additional beneficial antioxidants. Red carrots contain lycopene, an antioxidant also found in tomatoes, and purple carrots have anthocyanins, which also provide colour to other nutritional superfoods, such as blueberries.

Research indicates that eating carrots regularly may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and glaucoma (optic nerve damage caused by pressure inside the eye, which can lead to blindness).

When should I plant carrots?

Carrots prefer cooler temperatures. They do best in temperatures ranging from 60 to 75 Fahrenheit. Warm days and cool nights produce the sweetest carrots.

As a general rule, plant spring crops 2-4 weeks before the last frost (typically the early spring) and for a fall crop, plant 8-12 weeks before the first frost (usually the mid to late summer). The temperature should be at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 Celsius) when you plant. You can start planting earlier and continue growing later in the season if you provide protection, such as a cold frame or polytunnel.

In mild climates, you can enjoy carrots year-round if you succession sow them. However, some varieties will grow bitter in hot temperatures (about 80 Fahrenheit or 27 Celsius).

Where should I plant carrots?

Plant carrots directly in the garden in a sunny spot (they don’t transplant well, so starting them indoors is not recommended).

How far apart should I space carrot seeds?

Aim to leave at least 1-2 inches of space between seeds, and thin to 3-4 inches later on. If planting in rows, leave a foot or more of space between them. Wider spacing will usually produce bigger carrots.

It can be tricky to get appropriate spacing to start with because carrot seeds are so tiny. You may end up planting them more densely and having to do more thinning later on, which can disturb the roots of neighboring seedlings. If you’d like to make the planting process easier, you can purchase pelleted seeds or seeds attached to seed tape (these cost more than regular seed).

How deep should I plant carrot seeds?

Plant carrot seeds 1/4 deep.

How long do carrot seeds take to sprout?

If conditions are good, carrot seeds will sprout within 6-21 days. The closer the temperature is to ideal for sprouting (65-75 Fahrenheit/18-24 Celsius), the faster the seeds are likely to sprout.

It’s important to maintain consistent moisture after planting. Some gardeners provide shade by putting a cloth over a polytunnel or planting carrots in a furrow and placing a board or blanket over them until they sprout to make it easier to keep the soil moist.

A popular strategy when growing carrots is to plant a nurse crop of radishes in the same rows because they mature quickly, loosen up the soil, suppress weeds, mark rows for the slower-sprouting carrots, and shelter carrot seedlings when they emerge. The radishes are harvested while the carrots are still in the early seedling stage, so they don’t compete at the later stage when the carrots are producing bigger roots.

Can I grow carrots in the shade?

While full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day) is ideal, carrots can grow in partial shade (at least 2-3 hours of direct sun per day).

What type of soil do carrots need?

Supermarket Carrots
Long, Thin Supermarket Carrots

Carrots do best in loose, deep soil. Loosen the soil and remove any roots or rocks before planting, because obstacles can cause carrots to fork or become otherwise twisted and misshapen. A sandy, loam-type soil is ideal. Acidic, compacted, and heavy clay soils yield poor results.

Don’t add much nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the soil before planting, or you’ll end up with lush leaves at the expense of root development, or hairy roots. Mixing in an inch of well-aged compost before planting will improve growing conditions. Worm compost is particularly good for carrots.

Can I grow carrots in a container?

Carrots can be grown in containers as long as they’re deep enough. The smaller finger and ball varieties can manage in as little as 6 inches of soil, but most carrot varieties need deeper containers (8 inches at the absolute minimum, and preferably more, depending on the variety).

How big do carrots plants get?

Carrots can grow up to around 18 inches tall, though plants are typically 6-12 inches tall.

What ongoing care do carrots need?

Keep the soil consistently moist. Carrot seeds need moisture to sprout, and dry soil or inconsistent watering can cause carrots to split or become hairy (but don’t water so much that the soil becomes waterlogged, particularly shortly after planting, as this may move seeds around so that you end up with clumps of carrots growing in a few spots rather than even spacing; water the seeds with a spray bottle or sprinkler hose to avoid this problem).

Weed regularly when carrots are in the early stages of growth. Carrot seedlings don’t compete well with weeds. Once carrots grow larger, their dense foliage suppresses weeds.

Thin to 3-4 inches when your carrot foliage is around 4 inches high (you can eat the thinnings in salads). Water after thinning.

Mulch with compost, grass clippings, or seedless straw when the plants are around 6 inches tall to suppress weed growth and conserve moisture. Mulching also prevents the shoulders of the carrots from being exposed to the sun, which causes them to turn green and inedible due to their bitter flavour.

Should I fertilize carrots?

Carrots aren’t heavy feeders, and too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer can actually be a problem, as it encourages the plants to put their energy into producing lush greens rather than big roots.

Using a soil with some added fertilizer and compost when planting is usually sufficient. You shouldn’t have to add additional fertilizer unless you’re planting in very nutrient-poor soil, and you definitely don’t want to add fresh manure, as it will cause the carrot roots to become forked and hairy.

A liquid kelp or other fertilizer that has less nitrogen and more potassium and phosphorus can be added if your soil is very nutrient-poor.

How long do carrots take to grow?

Carrots mature in 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the variety.

When do I harvest carrots?

Carrots are usually harvested throughout the summer and fall, though this can be extended into the spring and winter in milder climates or with some cold protection such as a cold frame or polytunnel.

Though you can harvest them at any stage, carrots are best gathered when they are an inch in diameter or less, as this is when they are at peak flavour. If you leave them in the ground beyond this, they may become woody. On the other hand, if you pull them up too early, they won’t be as flavourful, because they haven’t had time to store much sugar (the sweet baby carrots available in supermarkets are either carved from mature, large carrots or they’re small-root varieties harvested at maturity).

A fall crop of carrots can be left in the ground until you want to use them. However, you’ll need to dig them up quickly in the early spring, before they become tough and woody. An early spring crop of over-wintered carrots can have very good flavour because the cold weather causes them to convert some of their starch into sugar. If you plan to overwinter your carrots, provide some protection (for example, a leaf or straw mulch).

Be careful not to damage the carrots when you’re pulling them up, as damage causes them to rot more quickly.

Why didn’t my carrot seeds sprout?

Carrot seeds may fail to sprout if the soil dries out or the seeds are too old (carrot seeds keep for a relatively short time compared to those of other vegetables). Also, birds and other creatures like to eat carrot seeds. If you suspect that your seeds are being eaten, you can keep pests out with row covers.

Slugs will also gobble up newly emerged seedlings, so your carrots may have sprouted and been eaten before you saw the emerging seedlings. See Natural, Non-Toxic Ways to Deal with Garden Slugs for tips on getting rid of these pests.

Why are my carrots so small and spindly?

Carrots need the right growing conditions to produce surplus energy that they can store in their roots. Root growth will be stunted if the plant suffers from too much competition due to failure to weed or thin the plants to the appropriate spacing (3-4 inches). Insufficient light, water, or nutrients can also cause this problem.

Why are my carrots splitting?

This problem is typically caused by overly soggy soil, excessively dry soil, or inconsistent watering.

Why are my carrots forking?

If your carrots are growing in multiple directions (for example, carrots that look like pairs of legs), the roots have probably come into contact with stones or fresh manure, which causes them to split into two new growing points.

Why are the tops of my carrot roots green?

This is caused by the tops of carrot roots (the shoulders) being exposed to sunlight, which renders the exposed portions inedible (the rest of the carrot is fine – just cut the green portion off when preparing). Pile soil up over the carrot shoulders or use mulch to cover them to prevent this problem.

Why are my carrots bolting (producing flowers) early?

Carrots won’t usually bolt until their second year of growth, but if they’re exposed to low temperatures (below 50 degrees Fahrenheit/10 degrees Celsius) for a couple of weeks or more) followed by warmer days when still small, the plants are tricked into reacting as though spring has come. Once the plants have bolted, the carrots will not have good flavour or texture.

Why are my carrots pale yellow instead of orange?

There are naturally yellow carrot varieties, but if you’re growing an orange type and the carrots are very pale, temperatures may be too warm or cold, or the soil may be too waterlogged. Carrots that are paler than they should be usually have poor texture and flavour.

Why are there holes in my carrots?

The culprit is often carrot rust fly larvae, which tunnel into carrot roots, creating rust-coloured lesions that make carrots inedible, though carrot weevils may also be the problem.

You can reduce the risk of attracting these pests by removing damaged foliage and thinnings immediately. Row covers and mulching can also provide protection.

Some gardeners plant rows of onions between rows of carrots to repel the pests, grow carrot rust fly-resistant varieties, or use carrot rust fly netting.

Grow your carrots in a different spot each year in case there are still carrot rust fly maggots in the soil.

Why are my carrots woody, hairy, and bitter tasting, with discoloured foliage?

Pests called leafhoppers spread a bacterial disease called aster yellows that causes this problem. The carrot roots look twisted or stunted and hairy, and portions of the leaves are discoloured, taking on a brownish, reddish, or yellowish hue.

You can reduce the risk of this disease by enriching soil with compost, growing carrots far away from fruit or nut trees and grapevines (which often host the bacteria), and using row covers to keep leafhoppers out. Hairy or misshapen roots can also be caused by too much nitrogen in the soil (often the result of over-fertilizing), and brown discolouration of foliage can  be caused by a fungal infection, which is more likely to occur after a period of high humidity.

Why did my carrot seedlings disappear?

Earwigs and slugs can eat a whole bed of carrot seedlings in a single night.

How do I store carrots, and how long will they keep?

Cut off the top greens and store carrots in the refrigerator. They should keep for around two weeks. If any carrots have been damaged (scraped, broken, etc.) during harvest, use them immediately, as they’ll go off far more quickly.

Some people store carrots in a box of sand (builder’s sand, not beach sand) in an unheated shed or garage, where they will keep for up to 6 months in the right conditions. Roots should not be touching one another, as this encourages rotting.

If you’d like to freeze your carrots for long-term storage, you’ll need to cut them up and blanch them before placing them in a sealed freezer bag or container. The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides detailed instructions for blanching and freezing carrots.

You can also leave carrots in the ground throughout the winter in mild climates. They’ll continue to grow slowly and can be harvested as needed. If the ground is likely to freeze, protect them with mulch.

How do I save seeds for carrots?

Carrots are biennials, which means that they set seeds in their second year. If you don’t pull them up during the first year of growth, they’ll produce flowers that attract beneficial pollinators to your garden.

If you want to save seeds, don’t collect them from the earliest-flowering plants, because you won’t want to grow varieties that bolt early. Let seed heads ripen on the later-flowering plants until they turn brown, cut them off, and dry them indoors for a week or so in paper bags. Then crush them to release the seeds and save the largest seeds for planting. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place.

If you plan to save carrot seeds, keep in mind that different carrot varieties will cross-pollinate, and Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) will also cross-pollinate with carrots within half a mile.

Carrot seeds only keep for around 3 years, in good storage conditions, and they’re best used within a year of collection.

Should I peel carrots?

The outer part of the carrot tends to have the highest concentration of beneficial nutrients, so giving carrots a good wash but not peeling them is recommended for maximum health benefits.

Are carrot greens edible?

Yes, carrot greens are edible and highly nutritious. For carrot top recipes, see the Carrot Museum’s Carrot Tops page.

There are poisonous plants that look like wild carrot. If you’re going to consume carrot tops, make sure you have the right plant. Also, it’s possible to be allergic to carrot greens, in the same way a person might be allergic to dairy, wheat, or pollen. This doesn’t mean that the plant is dangerously toxic however; this is a risk that can occur with many different foods. For a good discussion of this, see Linda Ly’s Are Carrot Tops Toxic? (The Short Answer: No) on Garden Betty.

How do I cook carrots?

Carrots are delicious raw, on their own or with dip, or sliced or grated into salads. However, they’re sweetened by cooking, and there are plenty of great carrot recipes for main courses, side dishes, snacks, and desserts. See the carrot pages on Eating Well and Cooking Light for a selection of recipes.

For more vegetable and herb gardening articles, see the main Gardening page.

References:

    • Cornell University. (2006). Growing Guide: Carrots. Gardening.Cornell.edu.
    • Day, S. (2010). Incredible Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books.
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    • Halsall, L. (2012). Small Plot Big Harvest: A Step-by-Step Guide to Growing Fruits & Vegetables in Small Spaces. New York, NY: DK Publishing Special Markets.
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    • McGee, R. M. N., & Stuckey, M. (2002). McGee and Stuckey’s the Bountiful Container. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.
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    • The George Mateljan Foundation. (2016). The World’s Healthiest Foods: Carrots. WHFoods.com.
    • Tozer, F. (2013). The New Vegetable Growers Handbook. Santa Cruz, CA: Green Man Publishing.
    • World Carrot Museum. (n.d.). Carrot Questions and Answers and Carrot Nutrition. CarrotMuseum.co.uk.