15 Common Problems With Garden Grown Carrots
Carrots can be a bit difficult to grow for both beginning gardeners and seasoned experts alike. There are many different problems they can succumb to, depending on your location and how they've been cared for. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey examines the most common problems with garden carrots and how to fix them!
With their vitamin-rich nutrition and irresistible crunchy, sweet flavor, carrots are a staple in any garden. There is nothing quite like pulling a gorgeous carrot from the soil and bringing it straight into your kitchen. These vibrant long roots can be used in everything from salads to stir fries to juices to veggie dip appetizers.
But when your carrots are sparse, spindly, woody, or otherwise underperforming in the garden, it can be pretty disheartening. They are prone to a range of growing issues from poor germination to pesky flies and diseases.
Carrots take up to 3 or 4 months to reach maturity, which means there is a long window for things to go wrong. They may not be the most beginner-friendly garden crop, but once you crack the code to growing carrots yourself, you’ll never want to go back to those bland store bought roots.
Thankfully, you can learn from our mistakes to prevent these issues and master the art of carrot-gardening much faster. Let’s dig into the most common problems gardeners face when growing carrots, plus how to fix them.
Carrots are notoriously finicky about germination. They take 1 to 3 weeks to come up and require very consistent moisture. Even experienced farmers can have a hard time getting carrots to germinate under certain conditions.
Just a day or two of the soil drying out could drastically reduce germination success because it causes soil crusting. A crusted soil surface makes it extremely hard for seedlings to burst upward into the light.
The fact that carrot seeds are planted so close to the surface can make matters even worse. They easily dry out because they’re planted in the top 1” of soil that is exposed to sunlight.
How to Fix It
The main reason for poorly germinated carrots is a lack of consistent moisture. Because they take so long to come up, there is a large window of error for carrot seeds. They may get a nice dose of water initially and then run out of moisture just when they get close to the surface. Alternatively, they may not ever come out of their seed coat at all because the soil is too dry. Here’s how to prevent these irrigation problems.
Amend The Soil
Generously amend the soil of carrot beds with compost to improve the water holding capacity. The higher amounts of organic matter helps prevent the soil from drying out in between irrigation. Alternatively, you can “mulch” with 1-2” of compost spread directly over the soil surface. Just be sure your compost is fully finished, cooled, and finely sieved.
Use Row Cover
Place row cover over the top of the carrot seeds to help retain moisture. This fabric retains the water and buffers the emerging seedlings from temperature extremes and pests.
Use Overhead Irrigation
Use overhead irrigation like sprinklers or wobblers to evenly moisten the soil. Drip lines or soaker hoses sometimes don’t provide enough broad coverage for carrots.
Don’t Let Carrot Beds Dry Out
Never let carrot beds dry out. Check the moisture daily by sticking your finger in the soil. It should feel moist but not soggy.
Use Pelleted Seeds
Another option is ordering pelleted seeds. Pelleted seeds are tiny individual seeds coated in clay to make them easier to handle. These seeds are individuated using special technology and then wrapped in an organic-approved coating that will dissolve once they’re in the ground. This means it’s easier to hand-seed your carrots or use a push seeder. The main drawback is that pelleted seeds are significantly more expensive than regular carrot seeds.
Tiny, Thin Roots
When people are crammed together in a small space, they don’t have the freedom to stretch out. Plants are the same way. Beginner gardeners often make the mistake of sowing carrots very closely together and forgetting to thin them. The result is measly roots that look spindly, small, and underdeveloped.
Carrots’ ultra tiny seeds make it even more difficult to properly space carrots as you sow them. Rest assured that you don’t have to seed carrots perfectly every time. Simply buying a few extra seeds and thinning after germination can drastically improve root size and quality.
How to Fix It
Thin your carrots to at least 1-3” between each plant. Depending how large you want your carrots to be, you may opt for a closer or wider spacing. You can use small shears to cut from the base or carefully pull out the seedlings with your fingers while holding nearby roots in place.
It may feel like you’re missing out on potential yields, but the rewards of thinning are far greater than the loss of a handful of crammed-together seedlings. If you want carrots that are big and round, you have to thin them before they wind up overcrowded, puny, and without the room to size up.
Woody, Bitter Roots
If you leave carrots in the ground too long, they can lose their characteristic sweetness and become bitter. This is why extra large carrots are not desirable. As carrots age, their texture turns from crisp and crunchy to touch and woody. While they are still technically edible, they don’t taste very good.
If your carrots are still slender and young, yet taste bitter, then inconsistent watering is the likely culprit. Above all else, carrots crave consistency.
The soil should not dry out in between waterings or become soggy after watering. Instead, carrots prefer a balanced delivery of soil moisture to keep them sweet and crisp. Smaller amounts of water on a very frequent schedule are better than large volumes of irrigation after a long period without water.
Bolting (described below) can be another reason for bitter or tought roots.
How to Fix It
When carrots start to get too large or old (up to several weeks past the original maturity date), your best course of action is to harvest them and prepare for cold storage.
While some varieties are designed for overwintering in the ground, most carrots should be pulled up, washed, and stored in a cooler or refrigerator. It’s important to catch the carrots right at the point where they have reached a satisfactory size, yet still have great flavor.
We recommend using the number of days to maturity that is listed on the seed packet and calculating forward from your planting date. Mark it on your calendar when you should start pulling up a few carrots to test them.
You can typically wait another 1-3 weeks before they start becoming oversized or bitter. When the weather is colder, the woodiness will be delayed even longer and the carrots will get sweeter. Once they reach the desired size and sweetness, dig up all the carrots, remove their tops, wash them, and store in a ventilated bag in the fridge.
Bolting is what happens when a plant prematurely goes to flower and produces seed. It is a signal that the crop’s life cycle is over or it’s making a last ditch attempt at reproducing because it is under environmental stress. Either way, you don’t want your carrots to bolt because it can make the roots inedible.
Like their celery and dill cousins, carrots are biennial crops, which means they focus on vegetative (leaf and root) growth in their first year, then transition to reproductive (flower and seed) growth in the second year.
However, under certain conditions the plant may start to elongate its greens and send up a flower stalk in the first year. The base of the greens (where it connects to the root) will look fatter and umbel blossoms will begin to form on top.
For spring carrots, unsettled weather in the early season is the most common cause of bolting before the carrots have started to form roots.
Too much cold or a sudden bout of warm weather can signal juvenile carrots to produce flowers instead of channeling their growth down to the roots. Summer and fall carrots can also bolt when it is too hot or there are drought-like conditions. Bolted carrots become incredibly fibrous and even woody at the core.
How to Fix It
The easiest way to avoid bolting in carrots is to select season-appropriate varieties. You will notice that seed catalogs often differentiate between spring carrots, summer (or heat-tolerant) carrots, fall carrots, and storage carrots. Specific cultivars have been bred to resist bolting
Small Roots With No Main Root
When your carrots don’t form a large central root, it’s usually a sign of excess nitrogen. Your carrots may look like little fingers instead of a taproot.
Carrots naturally send out these side networks of fine roots to scavenge for nutrients and water. But when there is a ton of extra nitrogen in the soil, the secondary roots get oversized and steal nutrients away from the central taproot.
How to Fix It
Avoid fertilizing carrots with quick-release or synthetic fertilizers. Instead, opt for slow-release organic fertilizers that won’t blast the plant with too many nutrients at once. Avoid planting carrots in soils that have been recently amended with manure or high-nitrogen compost.
If you have high nitrogen levels in your soil, you should also avoid planting carrots directly after a leguminous crop in your crop rotation. Instead, plan carrots after a heavy-feeder crop like brassicas.
Short, Fat Roots
Fat or short carrot roots result from carrots hitting a soil compaction layer as they grow. This is a garden crop that absolutely demands loose, friable soil to grow in their proper shape. You can’t get 6” long slender carrots if your soil has a hardpan 4” down. Hardpans primarily occur from rototilling, a lack of organic matter, or heavy compaction such as machinery tires over the soil.
If you crave those long, slender carrots you see at the farmer’s market or grocery store, all hope is not lost. A broadfork is one of the best investments you can make for your garden.
How to Fix It
Use a broadfork or digging fork to thoroughly loosen the soil 10-12” deep before seeding carrots. These times can help break up compaction and encourage more aeration in the soil. Incorporating biologically-active compost or vermicompost can further improve the soil texture and drainage so the carrot roots can dig deeper.
If you can’t tell by now, carrots are a bit like sensitive snowflakes. They can’t handle extremes in any form. When carrots are exposed to excess heat, they become stunted or small.
They prefer to grow in an ambient temperature of 60-70°F. Anything over 85°F can quickly stunt their growth and lead to small, sad roots. Hot temperatures can also reduce germination or cause carrot seeds not to come up at all.
How to Fix It
While carrots prefer full sunlight or slight shade, they can’t handle excessive summer heat. The easiest remedy is to simply avoid growing carrots in the summer.
Instead, opt for spring or fall varieties. If you live in a hot southern climate, you can choose heat-tolerant cultivars and grow carrots in a bit more shade. alternatively, use shade cloth to slightly lower temperatures.
When carrots start rotting in the ground, you may be facing a disease like root rot. Soggy soils or overwatering can cause carrots to get mushy or limp while still in the ground. This is because the excessive soil moisture is suffocating the roots while simultaneously allowing fungal pathogens to take over.
How to Fix It
Drainage is the key for preventing root rot. Use compost, broadforking, and aeration materials like peat moss or vermiculite to help loosen the soil. Don’t give carrots too much irrigation water.
We aren’t the only ones who love the taste of carrots. Burrowing rodents like mice and voles are notorious for taking bites out of carrots and leaving behind jagged holes in the roots. Sometimes, secondary pathogens like root rot can colonize the holes left behind. Carrot weevils and carrot root flies can also have a big appetite for carrot roots.
How to Fix It
Baited mouse traps or a garden cat are the easiest controls for rodents. Carrot root-eating pests need to be closely monitored for damage and kept away from plants with cultural controls. You can also use raised garden beds, or grow carrots in containers if you have a smaller garden space.
For example, you should only thin seedlings in the evening when the carrot flies are less active. Remove thinned plants from the area. Crop rotation of the Apiaceae family can also keep flies at bay.
Companion planting your carrots with strong-smelling plants like scallions, onions, basil, cilantro, and nearby lavender may deter pests even further.
Carrot leaves are just as nutritious and edible as the roots, but we don’t usually eat them. Slugs and snails, on the other hand, find them incredibly appetizing. Missing or chewed leaves can cause reduced root development or complete crop failure.
Fortunately, these pests usually leave slime trails to tell you they were there. If significant portions of the leaves are missing or the whole tops of your carrot plants go missing overnight, deer are the likely culprits.
How to Fix It
Slugs and snails can be handpicked at night with a flashlight or you can set beer traps for them by placing a plastic container of cheap beer at the soil level for them to fall into.
Deer are more difficult to deter without a fence, but there is evidence that porcine blood meal or canine urine around the perimeter of the garden can keep them away. You may also want to cover your carrot beds with a low tunnel of arched PVC pipes and floating row cover.
Yellowing carrot leaves are a sign that something is awry beneath the soil. Under or overwatering are common reasons for yellowing. Root knot nematodes, Bacterial leaf spot, root rot, or leafhoppers are also potential causes.
How to Fix It
Ensure consistent watering so the soil is never dry nor soggy. Below-ground pests like microscopic nematodes are difficult to eradicate. Crop rotation, removal of crop debris, and solarization of the planting bed can help reduce their populations.
If the leaves have patchy yellow areas and stem with brown centers or streaks, bacterial leaf spots may have taken hold. This can be treated with copper fungicides but is best prevented by avoiding overhead irrigation and rotating crops out of areas at least every 2-3 years.
If the leaves also appear curled, wilted, or scorched, you probably have a case of leafhoppers. These ⅓-inch long green, yellow, or brown bugs jump sideways around the carrots and suck juices out from the plant leaves. Insecticidal soap or neem oil can quickly get rid of them. Better yet, floating row fabric can keep them off from the beginning.
Asters yellows is an unfortunate carrot disease that causes root hairs to grow excessively hairy and spindly around the carrot. It’s caused by a bacteria-like organism called a phytoplasma. The main vector of the disease are leafhoppers, which spread it when they feed on plant juices.
The Affected carrot roots appear almost fuzzy and hairy. They become distorted and shortened. Infected carrots also have an abnormally broadened top and leaves that turn patchy red, yellow, gold, purple, and brown. The crown may take on an appearance like a witches’ broom.
How to Fix It
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for asters yellow once it takes hold. It’s best to remove infected plants as soon as you spot them. Then, take steps to control leafhoppers in your carrot patch to prevent the disease from further spreading. Pyrethrins, neem oil, and insecticidal soap are useful aids.
Spindly, Leggy Plants
When carrots don’t get enough sunlight or warmth, they can quickly become spindly and leggy. The roots grow small and twisted while the tops thinly elongate upward in pursuit of more light. Cold weather and overcrowding can also cause spindly growth.
How to Fix It
Grow carrots in the sunniest parts of your garden where they won’t get shaded out by other plants or structures. Only plant carrots in the spring when the danger of frost has passed or protect them from cold temperatures with row fabric. Ensure that carrots are properly thinned to at least 1” per plant so they have the space to grow wider and taller.
Rust-colored Spots on Roots
Carrot rust is a disease caused by a pest called carrot rust flies. They lay their eggs near the base of the carrot plant, then the larvae hatch and burrow down to eat the roots. They leave behind tunnels that can appear brown or rust colored. They’re typically concentrated on the lower half of the carrot root. Secondary infections of root rot can enter through the damaged areas.
How to Fix It
Floating row cover is the easiest form of control for carrot rust fly. Lay it over the carrots at the time of planting and secure the edges with sandbags so they can’t creep in. Companion planting with flowers like white alyssum or dill can help attract beneficial predatory insects to keep fly populatinos in check.
Roots Aren’t Orange
We all know carrots for their vibrant beta-carotene rich skins. Pale or pastel colored roots are a sign that the plant is not getting what it needs to form the bright color it usually has.
Ensure that your plant has ample fertility, water, and warmth. If you have recently had a hard frost, your carrots may also be suffering from frost damage. This can result in pale or colorless carrot roots that are completely limp.
How to Fix It
Carrots like cool weather, but they shouldn’t be planted before the danger of frost has gone in the spring. Fall carrots need plenty of time to establish before cold weather sets in, otherwise they won’t be able to withstand the winter temperatures.
Provide them with a well-rounded all-purpose fertilizer that isn’t too high in nitrogen. Also be sure that you haven’t accidentally planted yellow, purple, or multicolor varieties of carrots.
There’s no denying that you can encounter a lot of problems with your carrots. Fortunately, most of them are preventable with proper variety selection, deep or loosened soil, and consistently even watering. Monitor your carrots regularly for pests and be sure to take quick action when you spot them. Most importantly, grow carrots in the proper season (avoid extreme heat or cold) for the most success.