How To Plant, Grow, and Care For Carrots in Your Garden
Carrots are one of the most popular vegetables in gardens around the world. But to get the perfect harvest, you need the perfect formula of soil conditions, climate, watering schedule, and more. In this article, gardening expert and farm owner Taylor Sievers examines how to plant, grow, and care for carrots in your garden.
Many garden vegetables taste the best when they’re picked fresh from a backyard garden. Their taste and texture can’t compare to the vegetables that sit idle in a delivery truck or in a grocery store for sometimes weeks at a time. The carrot is one of those vegetables! The best part is that carrots are relatively desirable to grow for the home gardener due to very little incidence of disease, their long storage potential, and their ability to be grown during the cooler months of the year. It’s no wonder that this vegetable crop has been a staple in the garden for centuries!
Carrots are a member of the Apiaceae family (also known as Umbelliferae), and this family also includes such herbs as parsnip, fennel, celery, cilantro, anise, angelica, and dill. Amongst the common cultivated herbs and vegetables mentioned here, there are also several “weedy” species in the Apiaceae family that you can often find growing on local roadside, one of which is believed to be the ancestor to modern-day carrots, and today is known as wild carrot or Queen Anne’s Lace. Some of these related “weedy” Apiaeceae species are not so pleasant, such as the deadly poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).
If you’re looking for an easy-to-grow and easy-to-store vegetable to grow in your home garden, then I’d say carrots might be the vegetables for you. They’re high in vitamin A and fiber and have a multitude of ways that they can be preserved, stored, and used in recipes. Read on to learn more about these crisp, tasty roots and their interesting history!
Carrot Plant Overview
Plant Type Biennial, Grown as an Annual
Native Area Europe, Asia, North Africa
Hardiness Zone USDA 2-11
Season Spring, Fall
Exposure Full to Partial Sun
Maturity Date 70-100 days
Growth Rate Fast
Plant Spacing 2-4 inches per row
Planting Depth 1/4 inch
Height 12 inches
Watering Requirements Moderate, Even Moisture
Pests and Diseases Root Maggots, Aster Yellows
Tolerance Needs Conditions Below 80⁰F, Ideally
Soil Type Sandy or Loamy
Attracts Parasitic Wasps, Flies, Soldier Beetles
Plant With Rosemary, Onions, Chives, Leeks
Don’t Plant With Dill, Fennel
Species carota subsp. sativus
The History of the Carrot
When you think of the modern cultivated carrot plant, what comes to mind? Instantly, images of long, tapered, orange roots with ferny foliage may surface. However, did you know that carrots weren’t originally orange? Or that carrot varieties can actually be shaped differently? Let’s dive into some carrot history to learn more about these staple vegetables.
Domesticated carrots were believed to have originated from the wild carrot (Daucus carota), a plant that has spread throughout much of the temperate world and is known as a weed by many. Wild carrot is indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
Wild carrot was reportedly used as a medicinal plant in ancient Rome. It was used as an aphrodisiac and in mixtures to help prevent poisoning. A Roman army physician named Pedanius Dioscordines wrote about both wild and cultivated forms of carrots in 65 B.C. He wrote that wild carrot could ward off reptiles and act as an aphrodisiac and diuretic. The cultivated forms were reported to be more palatable but less used for medicinal purposes.
Wild carrot and its relatives were repeatedly mentioned throughout history by many different names. Throughout the Dark and Medieval Ages, carrots and parsnips (Pastinaca sativa; a similar-looking root crop that looks like a white carrot) were important starchy staples for the European diet.
The Cultivation of Carrots
The first evidence of carrot cultivation was on the Iranian plateau in Persia in the 10th century. Carrots that were domesticated in central Asia were actually purple, yellow, and white – not orange. The wild carrot itself has a white, forked taproot.
It is believed that over time selections were made that led to a single, thick taproot with few forks, and then genetic mutations occurred which gave rise to colors in the roots. Cultivated carrots would spread to Syria and then Europe around 1100.
During the Arab expansion into Europe, cultivated carrots were brought to the area of Andalusia (Spain). From Spain, carrot cultivation spread into the rest of northern Europe. The first carrots that were brought over to Europe were either purple or a mutant of the purple carrot that appeared yellow. The carrots were purple because they contained high amounts of anthocyanins, a pigment compound touted today for its antioxidant properties.
The yellow carrots were believed to have mutated from the purple carrots and simply lacked anthocyanins. It was said that people preferred cooking with yellow carrots because the anthocyanins in the purple carrots would stain cooking water and cookware.
The orange carrot that we know today was believed to have come about due to hybridizing the yellow carrots brought over from Asia with relatives like the wild carrot and other wild subspecies native to the Mediterranean region.
The first cultivation of orange carrots in Europe is believed to have been in the 1500s. The Dutch led the orange carrot breeding movement and eventually developed orange carrot varieties that were notably sweeter.
Meanwhile in East Asia, the carrot was being cultivated and crossed there as well. The cultivation of these two types of the same species has led to two categories of carrots:
- Eastern/Asiatic Anthocyanin Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus var. atrorubens Alef.) – These carrots are shorter, thicker, and generally lacking in carotenoid content. They are normally purple, though some are yellow. Eastern carrots were widely cultivated in Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan.
- Western or Carotene Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus var. sativus) – These carrots are long and tapered in appearance and are usually orange or red in color. Carotene carrots are believed to have come from progeny between crosses of the Eastern yellow carrot, wild carrots, and Mediterranean subspecies.
Around 1530 was the first mention of the word “carrot” in English. This was borrowed from the French word “carrotte” and from the Latin “carota.” Carrots and parsnips were not clearly distinguished in English due to their similar appearances (because carrots were more yellow or white then). Both carrots and parsnips were simply called “more” or “moru” (from the word “mork,” meaning edible root).
In 1609, the pilgrims brought carrots to America, where they quickly became a part of the Native American diet as well. Then, in 1788, the carrot made its way to Australia with the British. In culture and cookbooks after its introduction, the carrot was extolled for its tastiness, versatility in many recipes and dishes, and its role as a staple in the garden.
The Carrot Legend
During World War II, the carrot came back to the forefront of people’s minds as a campaign was led to promote the eating of carrots, which were not as scarce as other food crops at the time. The British government touted that the Royal Air Force pilots could see so well because they ate special high carotene carrots, which improved their night vision.
This was a way for the government to keep quiet the fact that the RAF was using a new airborne radar system, but nevertheless, the legend that carrots can cure night blindness spread. Carrots are high in vitamin A, and a lack of vitamin A can cause night blindness. However, there’s no evidence to indicate eating a lot of carrots can significantly improve your vision to supernatural levels.
Carrots in the US
After making yet another comeback in the 1960s and 1970s in pre-packaged form, carrots are now regularly sold at grocery stores and farmer’s markets alike. Not only are carrots sold fresh for consumption today, but the pigments (particularly purple carrots) are used to color fruit juices, candles, and other fruit preparations. Modern carrot breeding has also led to varieties with higher carotene content.
United States carrot consumption peaked in 1997 with Americans consuming 14.1 lbs per person, but this number has since dropped off to 7.71 lbs per person in 2020. California produces 85% of carrots consumed in the United States, likely due to their year-round production ability. Michigan and Texas are also important carrot-producing states today.
Description of Carrot Plant
Carrot plants are not so easily distinguishable from their wild relatives, like Queen Anne’s Lace. The foliage is described as ferny or feathery, reaching up to 12+ inches in height. The plant is actually a biennial (flowering in the second year), but for production purposes, the carrot is grown as an annual.
A basal rosette of leaves forms during the first year, and the plant will remain like this until bolting in the second year when it sends up a flower stalk that can reach up to 3 feet tall. Temperatures must be under 50⁰F to induce flowering, and if harvesting the roots to eat then bolting is undesirable.
The plant produces a large, single (ideally), fleshy taproot. Carrot roots can be short and wide or long and tapered. This depends greatly on the variety and various soil characteristics.
The best way to propagate carrots is by direct seeding them into the garden or a raised bed. Starting seeds in trays or pots and then transplanting them is not recommended, because carrots have a long taproot. Plants that have this long taproot characteristic (compared to a fine, branching fibrous root system) typically do not handle transplanting very well.
Carrot seeds are small, brown, and light in weight. Moisten the soil before planting and sow the seeds in rows. Cover the seeds with a ¼ inch of light, loose soil to prevent the seeds from floating or blowing away. Space your carrot rows 12 to 18 inches apart, and sow the seeds about 1 inch apart in the row.
You will need to thin the seedlings so that the plants are 2 to 3 inches apart in the row after germination. Germination can take up to 3 weeks. Some growers will plant rows closer together in a bed system, and there are many special seeders for the home or market gardener sold today specifically for carrot production.
When to Plant Carrots
As soon as the soil temperature has reached 40⁰F, carrot seeds can be planted, even if the last estimated frost for your area has not occurred. Carrots are considered a cool-season vegetable and can be grown in either the fall or early spring. Carrots prefer soil temperatures between 55 and 75⁰F, so seeds will germinate much faster under these conditions. Carrots can be grown earlier in the season in hot desert climates.
Temperatures above 80⁰F will reduce seed germination. The higher summer temperatures will reduce the growth of carrot plants and also decrease the quality of the roots by causing bitter or off-flavors. If you prefer to have successions of harvests you can plant carrots every 4 weeks until mid-summer.
How to Grow Carrots
When growing carrots, there are many different factors that you’ll want to get correct in order to have a bountiful harvest. You’ll need to make sure you are on a proper watering schedule, have the right soil type, fertilizers, and keep up with routine maintenance. Let’s look at the most important factors to get correct when growing carrots.
Keep the soil evenly moist to ensure that your plants germinate and grow together. Overwatering will promote hairy roots and forking, so to keep even moisture without overwatering try mulching around your carrots to help conserve moisture. Fluctuations in moisture will cause certain root disorders, bitterness, and root cracking. Drip irrigation is a great way to keep your carrot beds moist without flooding the area.
When choosing a site to plant your carrots, keep in mind that carrots prefer well-drained, loose soils rich in organic matter with full sun (6+ hours of direct sunlight per day). Carrots can also be grown in partial sun (2 to 6 hours of direct sunlight per day). Soils with higher sand content will be preferred. If your soil has high clay content, consider amending with compost or growing your carrots in a raised bed. Loose soils allow for good root development.
When plants first germinate, the two cotyledons (baby leaves) will be grass-like in appearance. The new leaves that emerge after the cotyledons will be more fern-like in appearance. These are considered “true” leaves.
When the plant has at least 3 to 4 true leaves, you can thin out our carrot plants by simply plucking unwanted seedlings from the soil. Thin so that your carrot plants are at least 2 inches apart, and for larger varieties, you can thin seedlings so that they are up to 4 inches apart.
Add well-rotted manure or compost in the spring or fall will help increase soil fertility. Some sources say that when your carrots are 4 inches tall you can fertilize them with high nitrogen or nitrogen-only fertilizer by applying to the side of the carrot row and watering the fertilizer into the soil.
Fertilizers are typically labeled with three numbers which indicate the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) in that particular fertilizer. An example would be 18-46-0, which would indicate that the fertilizer has 18% nitrogen, 46% phosphorus, and 0% potassium. A nitrogen-only fertilizer would be one like 34-0-0 or 21-0-0.
Always follow instructions on the manufacturer’s label when applying pre-packaged organic and synthetic fertilizers. Fish emulsion is an organic fertilizer that is typically higher in nitrogen and is sold in jugs at hardware stores and gardening centers alike.
Some varieties will naturally push up out of the soil as their roots grow so that the tops will be exposed to sunlight. You can push the soil up around the exposed top so that it does not turn green.
Good weed control is important because carrots do not compete well with weeds, especially in the beginning stages of growth. If you choose to cultivate between rows, make sure to keep away from plants in order that you do not damage the roots. Mulching with grass clippings, straw, or other organic materials will help to conserve soil moisture and prevent weed growth.
When and How to Harvest Carrots
You can harvest carrots at any time that they reach usable size. This will depend on your own uses for your carrot crop! For snacking, I like to harvest my carrots when they are smaller, but for use in soups, stews, and pot pies, I’ll allow my carrots to grow a little larger since I’ll be chopping them up anyways.
It’s easier to harvest carrots if the soil is moist, so either irrigate the day before harvest or harvest after a rain so that the roots are fully hydrated and they easily come up out of the soil with a tug without snapping off. You can also use a garden fork to gently loosen the soil near the plant. Sometimes I will grab the carrot by the leaves and make a circular motion to rock the root back and forth in place before tugging from the soil.
After harvest, remove the greens and clean off the roots. I like to clip off the greens almost to their base at the top of the root, and then I take a garden hose on the “jet” setting and spray off the roots to knock off most of the soil. I take them inside and wash them again in the sink to make sure they’re nice and clean for storage.
Do not let your carrots overmature. The roots will become tough and bitter if overripe, and the roots may also swell too much and crack.
Varieties of Carrots
Have you ever wondered where “baby carrots” come from? When you head to the store, typically you’ll see packages of the quintessential-type long tapered orange carrots, and then there will be packages of small snack-size baby carrots.
Pre-packaged “baby” carrots for snacking didn’t necessarily come from a variety all their own, but rather they were the result of a campaign in the late 1980s to promote uses for twisted or knobby full-size carrots. Today, baby carrots are produced by either cutting down larger, deformed roots or they’re earlier harvested roots that have been planted at high densities to produce small uniform root growth.
Now let’s explore a few popular varieties of carrots that you can grow in your garden!
This small, round variety is ready to harvest in 58 days and has excellent color. Harvest when the root is the size of a 50 cent piece.
Plant this variety in a multitude of soils from heavy clay to shallow or rocky soils! ‘Thumbelina’ takes about 60 to 70 days to mature and is recommended for planting carrots in containers.
‘Short ‘n Sweet’
This variety is ready to harvest in 68 days and has a rich, sweet flavor. The roots are usually around 4 inches in length with a broad shoulder and tapered root tip. ‘Short ‘n Sweet’ is recommended for heavy clay and poor soils.
This hybrid variety matures in about 63 days and has a sweet and crunchy taste. The cylindrical roots are usually about 6 inches long and 1 inch thick.
This variety produces 8-inch roots that are about 1 ½ inches thick and matures in about 76 days. The roots are sweet, tender, and coreless, which makes this variety excellent for making juice.
This mild-flavored variety is white in color and is very vigorous in growth. ‘Belgium White’ is ready to harvest in about 75 days.
This variety is very broad-shouldered and bright orange. The stubby-shaped roots are ready to harvest in about 70 days and can be grown in heavy clay or shallow soils.
This hybrid variety is ready to harvest in about 70 to 75 days and forms 7 to 8-inch roots. The roots are uniformly thick and tapered slightly with a blunt tip. ‘Bolero’ has excellent disease resistance and stores well after harvest.
This variety matures in about 70 days and has a reddish-purple exterior. The interior is still bright orange, so when sliced this variety is really pretty to look at. The roots are typically 7 to 8 inches long and the flavor is described as spicy-sweet. This variety proved to be a favorite snack from my 2021 garden!
This lemon-yellow rooted variety produces sweet roots that are ready to harvest in about 75 days! The roots are typically about 8 inches long and are described as “crunchy and full of juice.”
Pests and Diseases
Carrots are relatively pest and disease-free most of the time, but there are a few pests and diseases you may want to look out for.
Root maggots are ¼ inch long legless maggots that are yellowish-white in appearance. Their bodies are shaped like cylinders that taper towards the head. Adult versions of these larvae resemble small house flies. They feed on and destroy many root crops, especially during cold, wet Springs.
You’ll notice tunnels in the roots and possibly wilting, stunting, and yellowing of the top growth of plants. Ultimately, the plant can die from severe infestations. It’s too late to treat your plants once you notice damage, but you can protect your carrots by removing conditions that are favorable for root maggots.
Root maggots are attracted to rotting, decaying organic matter, so do not use animal or green manure (decayed plant growth) in the Spring. Wait until cold, wet conditions have passed to plant carrots and remove infected plants immediately and destroy them.
Aster yellows is a disease that is transmitted by leafhoppers, which are small insects that feed on the juices of the plant. The roots will become hairy and the tops will become yellow if plants have become infected with aster yellows.
Completely remove infected plants from your garden and destroy them if you suspect your carrots have been infected by this disease. There is no cure once infected. Remove perennial weeds from your garden which can act as host plants for this disease. Use light-colored mulches to disorient leafhopper insects.
Sunburning of carrot roots can occur when the tops of carrot roots push out of the soil and become exposed to sunlight. The result is a greening of the top of the root and an off-flavor as well. Cut away the green portions of roots if this has already occurred to your carrot crop, but to prevent this in the future you can gently hill up soil around the top of your carrot roots as they begin to swell.
Preservation of Carrots
Carrots can be preserved in many ways, which is why they’ve been, and have remained, such an excellent addition to the home vegetable garden. They can be stored in the refrigerator after washing. Carrots will lose moisture in most refrigerators because the humidity is relatively low. Store the carrots in a plastic bag or in the high humidity drawer of your refrigerator.
If you wish to store your carrots for a longer-term, then a root cellar can be a great way to accomplish this! Root cellars are typically dark, dry, and cool. Many root crops (like potatoes) store exceptionally well for long periods in a root cellar. Carrots can be canned in a pressure canner or they can be frozen as well.
Carrots are high in beta-carotene, a compound we metabolize as vitamin A. Carrots also contain high levels of vitamin B6, fiber, and potassium. Purple carrots contain high levels of anthocyanin, which is an antioxidant.
Carrot flavor is enhanced by herbs like spearmint, marjoram, bay leaf, thyme, grated ginger, chives, dill, or parsley. Carrots can be sweetened using honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar.
I like to use carrots in several dishes! For soups and pot pies, I use chopped carrots. As a vegetable side for supper, I will either chop large carrots or use whole baby carrots and season with either brown sugar and cinnamon or with honey and ginger. Carrots prepared this way can be cooked on the stove or they can be roasted in the oven.
Carrots can also be pickled!
Of course, my favorite use for carrots is for fresh snacks! There’s nothing better than walking outside and plucking a few carrots from the garden and snacking on them moments later. This is also a great way to get your kids involved in the garden! My toddlers have loved being able to pluck small orange and purple carrots from our raised bed just outside our back door, washing them, and snacking on them right away.
Carrots also have value in the commercial and industrial worlds today, too! Oil from carrot seeds is used as a lubricant in industrial products. A polymer that is derived from carrots is now being used in the fabrication of racing steering wheels and fishing rods. The skin and hair care industry utilizes carrot extracts in some formulations, and the compound luteolin in carrots has been touted to help age-related inflammation in the brain and memory deficits!
Frequently Asked Questions
How many carrots do you get from one plant?
One carrot seed will yield one carrot plant and one carrot root to harvest. There are instances where the carrot roots may become “forked,” where the plant produces a root that has many fingers on it rather than one single, thick taproot. This is usually due to disease or soil issues, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you are harvesting more than one root.
Why are my carrot roots misshapen and forked?
There are a few reasons why your carrot roots may be deformed. Soil may be an issue, first of all. Typically heavy clay soils may become compacted, and root growth will be determined by the path of least resistance. If a carrot root hits a hard, compacted spot in the soil, this may cause the root to start branching.
Similarly, if a carrot root hits a rock or stone in the soil, forking may result as well. Seeding too thickly or inadequate thinning can result in misshapen roots, and damage due to the cultivation of weeds too closely to your carrot plants can cause issues with root formation. Sometimes soil pests like root-knot nematodes can cause root formation issues, too.
Do carrots need a lot of water?
Carrots need about 1 inch of water per week like most vegetable crops, but the most important thing about carrots is that they receive uniform moisture. Periods of wet spells followed by very dry spells are not good on carrot crops.
Try to water regularly and evenly, making sure that you are watering enough at one time to soak the soil adequately. Mulching around carrot plants will help conserve moisture and also help increase water infiltration into the soil by reducing water runoff, thus allowing water more time to soak through the soil profile.
Can you plant a carrot and will it grow?
As mentioned above, one carrot plant will typically yield one carrot root, so if you’re thinking that you can plant a carrot root and produce a bunch of carrot offshoots (like potatoes) to harvest then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
If you’re thinking you can chop up a carrot and produce several carrot plants, you’re going to be disappointed as well. You can, however, grow a new carrot plant if the carrot you’ve bought still has it’s top! If given the right conditions, a carrot root top may actually grow and produce leafy topgrowth and flowers. The flowers will potentially set seed and you could technically harvest the seed and plant them in your own garden to produce multiple carrots.
Just keep in mind that some carrots are hybrids, so the seedlings from these seeds may not look alike at all, and carrots need temperatures below 50⁰F to initiate flower production. This is a fun experiment to try at home, but if you’re serious about homegrown carrots in your garden then it’s probably best to purchase seeds from a reputable seed company.
What plants make the best companion plants for carrots?
What causes carrots to turn green at the top?
Carrots may turn green at the top due to “sunburning”. As carrots grow and begin to swell, sometimes the roots will push up out of the ground. The tops of the roots that are exposed to sunlight may begin to turn green as a result. The roots are still edible, though.
You can simply cut off the green part and eat the rest of your carrot. However, if you’d like to prevent sunburning, simply hill up the soil around your carrot plant when you start to notice the tops pushing out of the ground.
Sometimes the tops pushing up out of the ground may indicate your carrots are ready to harvest, too! If they’ve been in the ground for 50 to 60 days already, it’s likely this is the case. Overripe carrots have off-flavors and can be prone to cracking.
Carrots have been a staple crop in the human diet for centuries! They’re nutritious, filling, and they’re easy to store for long periods of time, so it’s no wonder why they have such a rich history of cultivation.
Today you can grow varieties in a rainbow of colors, including purple, yellow, red, white, and of course quintessential orange! Some varieties are long and thin while others are short and stubby – perfect for snacking. With relatively low pest and disease problems, the ability to be stored for long periods of time, and a sweet, crisp taste, these vegetables are a worthy addition to any home garden!