15 Tips For Growing Carrots in Hot and Arid Desert Climates
Do you live in a hot and arid desert climate? If so, growing vegetables of any type can be a challenge! But having the right information before you attempt it can drastically help along the way. In this article, gardening expert and former organic farmer Sarah Hyde gives you her top tips for growing carrots in desert climates!
Carrots are one of the most popular garden crops to grow in home gardens but can be one of the most challenging to grow, especially for beginning growers. Growing carrots in the desert is even more challenging because of the hot, arid environment. They aren’t as easy to grow as tomatoes in hot climates, but it’s absolutely possible!
Growing your own carrots gives you the freshest possible flavors, a choice of colors and varieties to meet your needs. So how can you grow different types of carrots if you live in an area with less moisture, that’s also hot?
In this article, I’m going to share 15 tips to grow carrots in the desert, gleaned from ten years of growing carrots for farmers’ markets in the high desert of Arizona. Let’s jump in and take a deeper look!
Assess Your Soil
Desert soils can be challenging places to grow garden vegetables. To produce a fine crop, carrots, more than other crops, need “good soil” – deep, fertile, loamy to sandy, relatively rock-free. If that describes your desert garden soil, count yourself lucky!
Most desert gardeners start with less than prime soil issues that can make growing long, beautiful carrots a challenge.
Be realistic about where your soil is, and what you need to do to improve it before jumping into growing carrots and being disappointed by the results. Read the tips below on how to amend your soil and choose the best variety of carrots for your tough soil.
Remember, carrots can be grown in containers, and most of these tips still apply. For containers, choose shorter rooted varieties and water more frequently than you would for in-ground carrots.
If you have rocky soil, remove the rocks the best you can when you are prepping the soil. Wherever a carrot root encounters a rock in the soil they may become forked, and may grow two “legs” or sometimes even grow in an “L” shape.
Even penny-size rocks can cause forking. While these funky-shaped carrots are completely edible and may provide a good laugh, any cook will tell you they are a nightmare to process in the kitchen!
If removing the rocks from your garden plot is not realistic, and you have your heart set on growing good carrots, plan to create raised beds at least 12” deep on top of your regular soil.
You may have to bring in soil and compost and grow in a deep bed on top of your native soil or build raised beds. Using extra-large, fabric containers can be a cost-effective way to grow carrots as a trial run before you commit to building raised beds out of more permanent materials.
Loosen Compacted Soil
Compact soils are those that feel like they have been driven over by a 12-ton truck – hard, poor water drainage, and stunted plant growth (if any). Many desert soils are compact, especially if your backyard garden is in a neighborhood where heavy construction machines once roamed as your house was being built.
As a gardener, you can combat compact soils before planting by deep forking, though be prepared for a workout. Use a well-built garden fork or a broadfork and break through the compaction manually, working down at least 12” deep.
Some extra-heavy clay areas may require a pickaxe or shovel to break it up. Incorporate as much compost as possible to your planting area and never walk on your growing area to prevent any more compaction
Be aware the compaction may be a few inches under the top of the soil, called a hardpan. If you felt tired just reading about using a pickaxe, you may have to go the raised-bed route mentioned above.
Forking the soil before building raised beds on top is a good idea to increase water drainage, but it is not absolutely necessary if your raised beds have good drainage and are at least 12” deep.
Compost, compost, compost. The salve for soil with too much clay or too much sand is compost. Desert gardeners should add as much compost to the garden as often as possible.
Compost increases the water-holding capacity of the soil, can help neutralize the pH (very slowly over time), and increases the soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is synonymous with fertility and is where microbiological life resides. Increased soil organic matter builds more resilient soil, and healthier, more resilient plants.
Carrots favor a loam to sandy soil with high fertility. If you have heavy clay soil, compost will help “lighten” it by adding more air space between the tightly-packed soil particles. If you have sandy soil, compost will help it retain water and nutrients for longer.
Use the highest-quality compost you can find, and as much of it as your budget allows, and apply regularly. Adding compost to improve soil organic matter is a long-game, so be patient.
Choose the Right Variety
Variety choice has a huge impact on a gardener’s success with carrots, and any crop for that matter! Carrot varieties can be roughly divided into three types: sweet (aka early or snacking) carrots, main crop, and storage carrots.
Rainbow colors of carrots tend to fall in the main or storage crop types. This does not mean you cannot eat storage carrots fresh out of the garden, or that your sweet carrots will not store.
All types have their uses, and will probably be outstandingly more delicious than store-bought carrots. It is best to know what type you are planting and what to expect.
Early carrots have a higher sugar content and are sweeter, have a more tender texture, and only keep a few months in the refrigerator at high quality.
Early carrots are baby sized as early as 36 days, and full size at 54! Early carrots also tend to be smaller, longer, more “pencil-shaped” and more delicate to harvest. Rough harvesting or heavy clay soils can lead to breakage – a disappointing end to your crop.
Main crop carrots are a middle-of-the-road between early and storage types. Read the variety description to understand what are the top features of any carrot variety you want to plant.
For example, qualities like strong tops make harvesting easier in clay soils because you have a stronger “handle” on the carrots. Shorter carrots are also easier to harvest than longer carrots without breakage.
Storage carrots are rugged, and may hold up to desert soils better. Generally mature around the 70+ day mark, they are thicker, with less sugar content, which makes them more sturdy and easier to harvest in thick clay soils. Storage carrots are great keepers, and can provide months of homegrown goodness when stored properly (see Tip 15 for info on storage).
Choose Hybrid or Open-Pollinated Seeds
Carrot seeds, like most any crop, are available as hybrid or open-pollinated (OP) varieties. There is a huge swath of carrot choices for both hybrid and OP types in an array of colors – purples, oranges, reds, white, or yellow.
Hybrid carrots are bred to perform better in tough conditions, more consistently, due to having the best, most vigorous traits from their parents. Hybrid is not GMO. Hybrid carrot seed can be more expensive than OP seed, and will not be true to type when saved. They will be noted as F1 next to the variety name on seed packets.
OP varieties include Scarlet Nantes (sweet orange), Dragon (storage purple skin/orange inside), Danvers (orange storage) and Paris Market (round, orange). Paris Market and Oxheart varieties can be great choices for compact or shallow soils since they naturally grow round or stubby, rather than long and straight.
OP seeds tend to be less expensive than hybrid seeds. There tends to be less overall uniformness in growth of OP carrot varieties than hybrid, but for the home gardener this is not a big concern. One exciting part of growing OP seeds is that you can save your own seeds and select plants that perform well in your microclimate, slowly adapting the variety to your own garden.
Use a Precision Seeder or Sow Carefully by Hand
Carrot seed is expensive. Part of this cost is due to the fact that carrots are biennials – meaning they only produce seed heads their second year. So carrot seed growers already have two growing seasons of costs! Add on the years it takes to produce hybrid seed, and you have multiple years of investment for one crop of seed.
Save on seed costs by sowing carefully. Use a precision seeder if you have access to one to sow only as much seed as needed.
However, most home gardeners do not have a precision seeder, but can plant using the same technique as a walk-behind precision seeder does. To do this, create a 1”-2” wide furrow in your soil before seeding.
Tamp the furrow a bit to make it slightly firm on the bottom. This step mimics the front roller of the seeder. Slightly damp soil rather than bone-dry soil will help make this step easier.
Next, carefully and slowly put seed into the furrow ½” – 1” apart. Use two fingers held together between seeds as a quick measurement. Take time to do this, even though it may be tedious, it will save you from wasting expensive carrot seed and reduce the amount of thinning you will have to do later on. Cover the seeds gently with a thin layer of soil and tamp down.
Set Up Drip Tape or a Soaker Hose at Planting
Carrots need adequate moisture for germination and for growing even, quick crops. Best practice is to set up a drip tape or soaker hose on planting day. You will most likely need irrigation to germinate the seeds.
Drip tape allows for gentle, steady, and targeted watering right in your planting furrow. Plus, once it is set up, you will have an easy way to water your carrots evenly throughout the growing season. Drip tape is a water-wise decision in water-scarce desert environments.
Rain, especially in desert regions, will most likely not be enough to germinate them, let alone get your crop to maturity. Hand watering with a hose attachment, watering can or using a sprinkler is not best since the heavy drops risk washing away the tiny seeds or drowning the tiny seedlings.
Keep Soil Moist Until Germination
Carrot seeds can take up to 2 weeks to germinate! During this time, the seeds and surrounding soil should not dry out completely. Aim to keep the soil damp but not soaking.
One way to achieve this is to cover the seeded area with a cloth – an old bed sheet or burlap works well. (Pin it down with sandbags or rocks to prevent it from blowing away in desert winds.) This helps moderate the temperature and reduce evaporation in the hot desert sun.
Check under the cloth regularly for germinated seeds and remove the cloth once you see a good stand of cotyledons. Carrot cotyledons look almost exactly like grass and other weeds – so train your eye to identify them! After removing the cloth or burlap, still aim to keep the soil from drying out completely until the seedlings have become better established.
Thin the Seedlings
Hopefully your carrots germinated well! After the plants have their first true leaf, which looks feathery, it is time to thin any that are too crowded. This may be in an area where you dropped more seed than intended.
Carefully thin the seedlings to 1”- 1 ½” apart, trying not to disturb the seedlings you intend to keep. Though it may be painful to pull out baby plants that you worked so hard to germinate, the remaining carrots will mature more quickly, with even growth and strong tops.
Keep Carrots Weed-Free
Carrots do not compete well with weeds, especially when they are young. Be sure to start with a clean seed bed before planting. Even so, weeds will show up on bare soil no matter what. Hand pick the weeds out of your carrot bed before the weeds get 2 true leaves.
Since weeds are adapted to grow super quickly, do not dilly-dally when tackling the weeding! Picking weeds is easiest when they are small and minimizes soil disturbance around the tender carrot seedlings.
Neglecting the weeds when they are small will have big consequences. Carrots will not mature well when smothered with weeds. If the root does size up, the tops will probably be weak and leggy, making pulling them impossible without breakage.
Plus, harvesting carrots in deep weeds is a miserable task. If your carrot bed becomes taken over by giant weeds, it may be best to till it under and start over!
Provide Moisture While Growing
Carrots mature best when watered evenly, deeply, and regularly. Test the soil with your finger to feel for soil moisture before watering. When watering, do not drown them, but make sure the soil never totally dries out all the way down the carrot root.
Inadequate or uneven moisture can cause splitting and poor crops. This is especially important in desert climates where the soil tends to dry out quickly.
Sow Multiple Batches During Season
Seed your carrots once a month or every 6 weeks in small batches, rather than one giant batch in spring. Though it may be a bit more work, you will be rewarded with harvesting carrots at their prime, rather than ending up with overgrown or woody roots by fall.
The other benefit of sowing multiple batches comes from integrated pest management (IPM) perspective. Planting only one batch of carrots risks losing it to pest damage, or feeling the pressure to spray insecticide. Planting multiple batches increases your chances of having a carrot crop mature outside of a major pest pressure window.
Check for Signs of Maturity
How do you know if your carrots are ready to dig? Before excitedly digging up your whole patch to find straggly roots, look for the signs that the carrots are mature. Brush back the carrot tops and observe!
The greens should be thick with many layers of growth where they meet the root. You should see the “shoulders” of the carrot poking above the soil. If you do not see the top of the root, gently brush away the soil to see. The carrot should be visible at the soil line and give you an idea of how big it is. If it looks large, go ahead and pull it up to check.
If the carrot you pulled looks mature, check the other carrots for the size of their shoulders. If most of them look similar to the one you pulled, then harvest as many as you need. The rest will store fine in the ground and keep growing.
It is best to harvest when the soil is relatively dry but not parched. Some soil moisture is good for harvesting, but mucky, wet soil will make harvesting very difficult and compacts the soil.
Harvest and Store Properly
The best time to harvest your carrots is morning when the soil is still cool. Especially in the desert, the sun can heat the soil quickly during the day. Harvesting when the soil is cool helps the carrots stay crisp, before the roots have lost moisture to respiration. Also, this requires less energy to cool the carrots down to proper storage temperature.
Wash or soak the carrots immediately after harvesting to prevent the soil from staining the roots or getting caked in the cracks. Once clean and not dripping wet, store your home grown carrots in the refrigerator without their tops.
Removing the carrot greens before storage helps keep the roots crisp. Carrot tops left on the carrots will slowly pull moisture from the roots, making for quickly floppy carrots.
Storing carrots in a plastic bag in the bottom of the refrigerator works just fine. For a long term storage (over 6 months), storing them in damp sand at refrigerator temperature helps them stay firm, but this may be a messy project for most home growers.
If you live in a cold climate and have a lot of carrots to store, a bucket of damp sand in your garage overwinter can work as long as it does not freeze.
Carrots are enormously rewarding to grow in your home garden but can challenge even experienced gardeners. Desert gardeners may have to put in an intentional effort to harvest a beautiful crop. Carrot’s cultural requirements are a bit picky since they thrive in loamy, rock-free soils with lots of fertility.
Sowing them requires careful attention, germination requires patience, and weeding them may require persistence. However, even desert vegetable growers can enjoy beautiful carrot crops by following these tips for growing carrots in desert environments.