Some folks don't bother growing carrots in the garden because they're so readily available at the store, but once you've tried a homegrown carrot, you'll be hooked. Like many homegrown vegetables, garden fresh carrots tend to be sweeter and more flavorful than their store bought counterparts. You can also grow carrots in a variety of colors – purple carrots, white carrots, red carrots, yellow carrots and many shades of orange carrots. Growing carrots in containers is possible with the right container and the right carrots. In this post we'll cover how to grow carrots, from planting to harvest, plus some common carrot questions.
Growing Carrots – Quick Guide
- Prepare your garden soil for carrots. Carrots prefer soil pH between 5.5 and 6.8. Above 6.0 is better. Soil should be rich in organic matter, but avoid excessive nitrogen, which will make your carrots hairy. Carrots prefer loose, well drained soil. Heavy clay or rocks will produce stubby or tangled roots.
- Plant carrots as early as 1-2 weeks before last frost in spring, or in fall or winter in zones 8 or warmer. If planting in spring, you can continue planting at two week intervals, up to 2-3 months before the first fall frost. Plant carrots in full sun for best production. Plants will tolerate late shade. Space plants 2″ apart within rows, with rows 6-8″ apart in a block style planting.
- Keep the soil moist during germination.
- Thin carrots to to 3 inches apart.
- Apply an organic mulch to keep soil cool and control weeds. Water carrots regularly if rains fail.Dry conditions followed by excess water can cause splitting.
- Harvest carrots when they reach desired size, or before hard frost.
- Store your carrots in the refrigerator or root cellar, or process for later use by canning, freezing, freeze drying, dehydrating or fermenting.
How to Grow Carrots – Step by Step Instructions
#1 – Preparing your garden soil for carrots
The best soil for carrots is deep and free of rocks and heavy clay. If you have light, fluffy garden soil in good condition, you're good to go with a little compost or well aged manure mixed in at planting time. If your soil is heavy or rocky, you'll want to do a little more preparation. Carrots do best with at least nine inches of easy to penetrate soil. With rough ground, it's helpful to fork in some leaves the fall before planting to lighten the soil. Most rocks should also be removed. (When a growing carrot hits a rock, you'll get a forked or bent carrot.)
Sally Jean Cunningham shares a great tip for those with heavy soil in her book, Great Garden Companions. She frames out a mini raised bed with 2×4 boards, right in her existing garden bed. (Say a 3'x 4′ space, for example.) She fills this bed with a mix of lighter soil, compost and leaf mold to create a carrot-friendly growing spot. At harvest, the entire frame can be lifted for easy carrot harvesting.
#2 – Planting Carrots
The best time to plant carrots is once the soil has warmed, about when the tulips are in bloom. Soil temperatures around 45°F or lower will slow down or stop carrot seed germination. You can buy planting tapes with neatly spaced carrot seeds, or pelleted carrot seed to make it easier to plant the tiny carrot seeds just where you want them. I prefer using carrot seeds “as is” carrot seeds and thinning them, but I have friends who like pelleted seed so they can avoid thinning.
Plant carrot seeds about 1/4″ to 1/2″ deep. I'll often make a shallow trench with my fingertip. Sprinkle seeds roughly 1/2″ apart down the trench (thicker for older seeds). Cover gently and water lightly to settle the soil. If soil is heavy, cover seeds with compost to make it easier for the seedlings to break through. The carrots below were planted in newly broken ground in the greenhouse, and had to struggle a bit to get established.
You can continue to plant carrots at roughly two week intervals up to about mid-July for extended harvests. Check the “Time to Maturity” on the carrot seed package for your variety and count back using that estimate. In warm areas, carrots are better suited as a fall and winter crop.
Some people interplant carrots with radishes. The radishes emerge more quickly, which helps to mark the row. They are then harvested before the carrots to make room for the carrots to grow.
A few carrot seed varieties that caught my eye on Amazon include:
- Caleb's Heirloom Color Carrot Seed Mix
- Krasnyy Velikan – Red Giant Organic Russian Heirloom Carrots
- David's Garden Scarlet Nantes Carrot Seeds – My mom always planted scarlet Nantes. It was her favorite “go to” carrot as a reliable producer of large carrots.
#3 – Help Your Carrots to Sprout
Ideally, your seed bed should stay moist until the carrots germinate. If you don't have rain, water gently every day or two. I give the carrot area a light sprinkle on my morning garden rounds. Be patient – it may take up to three weeks for carrot seedlings to appear. In good conditions, the baby carrot sprouts should show up in a week or two.
Some folks cover their planting beds with burlap and water right through the burlap to help retain moisture. Remove the burlap at the first sign of green sprouts. Another technique is to cover the seeded rows with a board, or tent garden fabric over the area to retain moisture. I like to be able to see what's going on, plus bare ground is likely warmer ground, which speeds germination, so I usually keep mine naked. If it is very windy or dry, I'll use burlap to cover.
#4 – When to Thin Carrots
I usually do my first thinning when carrot tops are two to three inches tall. At this point I aim to have them about one inch apart, and toss the mini carrot greens into my salad. They taste a something like parsley. About three weeks later you can thin again, leaving the plants spaced two to three inches apart to finish growing. Alternatively, you can thin to two to three inches at the first thinning so you only need to thin your carrots one time.
I usually pull my extra carrots, but if plants are very thickly planted, snipping off the extra plants might be safer. Pulling closely growing carrots might lead to pulling up the carrots you want to keep. Use a sharp pair of scissors to trim plants to ground level and desired spacing. Below you can see a cluster of greenhouse carrots that are ready to be thinned.
Do you really need to thin out your carrots? Yes, you really should – or plant them more widely spaced to start. I've had seasons where the carrot patch got away from me and they weren't thinned, and the roots are smaller and more tangled. With room to grow, you grow better carrots.
#5 – Carrot Care During the Growing Season
Once thinning is complete, apply an organic mulch such as grass clippings or straw to your carrots to moderate soil temperature and moisture. If your carrots tops push out a little as they grow, it's fine to cover them with a little soil or mulch to keep them from turning green and bitter. Water your carrots regularly, if needed, to keep soil moist. If it gets too dry and then too wet, your carrots may split.
#6 – Harvesting Carrots
As mentioned above, you can start your carrot harvest with the green tops while thinning your carrots, but the main crop won't be available for at least a couple of months. Don't be fooled into thinking big tops means large carrots – carrots fill out above ground before they fill out below. Carrots will typically hold for weeks in the ground, unless it's too hot or cold or dry, so there's usually not a rush to harvest. Heat and drought may cause bolting.
One trick that market gardeners use to keep harvesting all winter long is grow carrots to maturity in the greenhouse or hoophouse, and then harvest them as needed during the winter months. Sometimes they add straw or low tunnels for an extra layer of protection. Some people have good luck mulching carrots right in the garden and digging them as needed. I think this method works better with milder temps or heavy snow to help protect the carrots.
How many days to harvest carrots?
To get an estimate of when to harvest your carrots, you can check the “days to maturity” on the package. Short season carrot varieties (such as Minicore or Parisian) may be ready in around 55 days, where longer season carrot varieties (such as Oxheart and New Kuroda) may take 90-110 days to reach full growth.
When should I harvest my carrots?
If you think your carrots are ready to harvest based on time from planting or size of visible root top, dig or pull a test carrot to see how big it is. If you're happy with the size, continue harvesting. Think your carrot looks a little small? Wait a week or two longer and harvest another sample carrot.
What's the best way to harvest carrots?
If soil is loose and moist, you may be able to pull up carrots by the tops. When soil around your carrots is hard or compacted, gently loosen it with a fork before lifting out carrots. If you accidentally skewer a carrot, use or process it shortly after harvest. Do not attempt long term root cellar storage of damaged carrots.
When gathering carrots, take carrot to avoid getting the juices from the carrots tops on your bare skin. Like parsnips and other plants in the carrots family, the sap can cause phytophotodermatitis. Phytophotodermatitis symptoms include painful rash and blisters, as you can see in the post My Worst Gardening Mistake.
#7 – How to Store Garden Carrots
For root cellar storage, cull any damaged roots. Snip carrot tops to roughly one inch in length. Brush off excess soil. Pack carrots in layers in damp sawdust or leaves in a box or bin. Try to avoid having the roots touch. Do not store carrots near apples, as the ethylene gas from the apples may cause sprouting and off flavors in the carrots.
Alternatively, wash carrots and trim tops. Store in a plastic bag with the top open in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Best if used within a few months.
If you would like to store your carrots without processing, look for varieties that are specifically recommended for storage. The best storage carrots tend to take a little longer to mature and be larger carrots. The top and bottom photos of the post are carrots (and beets) that are headed to storage, and you can see that most of the carrots are rather stocky.
Carrot Q & A
What's the Best Carrot Seed?
The best carrot seed is fresh carrot seed. Many types of seeds store and germinate well for several years, but not carrots. Try to use your carrot seeds within 1-3 years of purchase, and plant them more thickly in later years to make up for lower germination rates. Keep unused seeds in a cool dry location, out of direct sunlight. You can make your own seed vault using a sealed container in your freezer.
What are good companion plants for carrots?
Great Garden Companions suggests these carrot companion plants:
- swan river daisies
In Carrots Love Tomatoes, Louise Riotte recommends these carrot companion plants:
- black salsify
I like to plant my carrots in a bed of mixed root vegetables, alternating several rows of carrots with onions, beets, kohlrabi, herbs and sometimes flowers.
What are the best carrots for containers?
If you want to grow carrots in containers, follow the directions for soil and planting above. Choose a container that's at least a foot deep so the carrot roots have room to grow. Opt for a quick maturing, smaller carrot variety, such as Minicore, Bambino or Parisian.
Are there fast growing carrots?
Yes. Some carrots will mature faster than others. Look at the “date to maturity” on package or catalog listing. Smaller varieties like Minicore, Bambino and Parisian mature in 55-60 days. Their small size also makes them good choices for carrot container planting.
Can I Buy Carrot Plants?
Nope. Carrots are one of those crops that is bet sown directly in the garden.
What's the Best Carrot Fertilizer?
Good garden soil with some compost mixed in should be enough, but if you'd like to add a little “extra”, choose an organic fertilizer that's high in potash. A dusting of wood ashes or kelp meal worked into the bed before planting will do the trick. Don't go crazy. Too much ash will burn your plants.
How Can I Grow Purple Carrots?
Were all carrots originally purple?
According to the book Heirloom Vegetables, the earliest carrots were purple, red or white. Yellow carrots came on the scene in Turkey in the 10th century, and our modern orange carrots didn't show up until the 17th century. Wild carrots (also known as Queen Anne's Lace) have a white root.
Are Carrots a Vegetable?
Yep. Because we eat the roots (and possibly the greens) rather than the seeds, they are classified as a vegetable – even though you can use them to make cake.
My Garden Carrots are Bumpy and Strange Looking – are they Safe to Eat?
Carrots grown in rough ground and some varieties of carrots will naturally develop bumps, forks and other odd looking bits. Don't worry, they still taste like carrots – they're just trickier to peel. I've assembled a lovely collage of ugly carrots from my many years of gardening. Don't fear the funky veggies!
Tons of food is thrown out each year because it's not cosmetically perfect. It's time to change that trend. Also, for those who are worried that these odds shapes might be due to Fukishimi fallout, most of the photos in the collage were pre-Fukishima. I did get a refund on the purple carrot at top left, because the seed company noted that some of the seeds were producing “off type” carrots. They still tasted just fine.
For the Love of Garden Carrots
One of my husband's favorite memories of his grandfather is about garden carrots. When he was a little boy, his grandfather let him eat carrots straight out the garden, washed off with the garden hose. He still remembers the crunch and sweetness, many decades later. (This is pretty significant, given that he sometimes forgets his own birthday…)
I hope you'll make space for growing carrots in your home garden, too.
Questions, comments or requests for the next vegetable? Leave me a comment and share your thoughts.
You may also find useful:
- How to Start a Garden – 10 Steps to Gardening for Beginners
- How to Grow Tomatoes Organically, Plus Innovative Gardening Techniques
- Planting and Growing Peas – What You Need to Know
Originally published in 2017, updated in 2018.
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