When to plant
Just like other members of the cow parsley family, carrots need warm air and soil in order to germinate. The air temperature should reach at least 12°C (50°F) and this equates to pleasant spring weather. So spring has to have arrived before you attempt to sow your seeds. They just won’t germinate if it’s cold and they share this trait with other umbellifers, including parsley and parsnip.
You can encourage slightly earlier germination by cloching the ground, but in my experience you don’t gain much of an advantage in time - perhaps ten days at most.
You also need to choose the correct carrot varieties for the time of year. There are fast-maturing varieties that crop by June and these are the ones to sow in spring and early summer.
There are also cold-tolerant varieties that can stay in the ground and these should be sown between April and June so they can be dug throughout winter. However, later sowings (at the end of August) are more successful if you revert back to the same faster-maturing varieties you planted in spring. These will produce an autumn crop.
Where to plant
Carrots like deep, fertile soil that’s well-drained. If your soil is stony it can make the carrots fork.
The best solution for stony soil is to rake out the stones as far as possible and to select a shorter-rooted variety.
Carrots don’t do well on newly-manured soil either: It encourages forking.
Carrots prefer good drainage and, although they are cool season crops, they often suffer in very cold weather once mature. So lifting and storing them has been the usual practise in Britain.
How to sow carrot seeds
The sowing technique is the same for all varieties. Sow in well-prepared ground that has been raked down to a fine tilth - ie no large lumps.
Using a line (basically a string strung between two sticks) make a straight shallow drill measuring half an inch in depth. If it’s dry, water the drill well before sowing. Sprinkle the seeds along thinly by pinching seeds from the palm of your hand - no packet tipping! You can leave six inches (15cm) between rows, although I prefer 9” as it’s easier to harvest.
When to pick
Your row of carrots will need thinning but the usual technique is to pull out the largest carrots when they have begun to form in early June - and then eat them.
Try to do your thinning after rain or in the rain: then the baby carrots pull out easily.
Look along the rows and pull out the largest all the way along. The gaps you create will leave room for the others to grow. Don’t just dig up a foot of row - some will be too small to use. Cover up the remaining roots as your harvest.
Try this recipe for spicy carrot soup
Carrot root fly can be kept at bay by rotating your crop on a four-year cycle. You can also build foot-high screens of enviromesh - although barriers do tend to exclude the rain.
Faster-maturing orange-rooted varieties for spring sowing
'Early Nantes 2'
Long, tapered roots early in the season. A staple variety.
A Nantes-type hybrid.
'Amsterdam Forcing 3' AGM
Smooth, blunt-ended carrots. Strong, with short foliage. The earliest variety of all.
'Chantenay Red Cored'
Red, coreless carrot with stumpy roots. Does well on stony soil.
Adelaide F1 AGM
Stump-ended, fast-maturing carrot - good for successional sowings.
Hardier orange-rooted varieties for winter use
Carrot 'Eskimo' F1 AGM
The most cold-tolerant variety and it can be over wintered on well drained soils. A very strong variety with robust tops. Crown normally below soil level.
'Kingston' F1 AGM
A late hybrid carrot for winter storage. Good colour and flavour.
Carrot Bangor F1 AGM
blunt-ended smooth carrot -can be stored for winter use.
'Autumn King 2' AGM
Large maincrop -a strong plant than can be stored or left in.
Vegetables contain healthy antioxidants that fight free radicals and keep us healthy. Antioxidants vary according to the colour of the vegetables, but darker vegetables contain anthocyanins. These powerful antioxidants are capable of holding onto harmful (and ageing) free radicals in the body.
Anthocyanins also help prevent heart disease by slowing blood clotting and they have anti-inflammatory properties. However, scientists are unclear whether the body can access large amounts of these.
Purple carrots are thought to have originated in Turkey and Central Asia where summers are hot and dry. 'Purple Haze' has a shiny purple skin and a soft-textured yellow middle. It’s good eaten raw or cooked and I grew it last summer. It cropped well and was highly popular with children
The flavour is sweeter, but quite bland when cooked. This may be better chopped and eaten raw. Yellow carrots (originally from the Middle East) contain xanthophylls and lutein, pigments similar to beta carotene. They help develop healthy eyes, aid in the fight against macular degeneration and may prevent lung and other cancers and reduce the risk of astherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
This F1 mixture contains roots in shades of white, yellow and pale-orange and the carrots are good cooked and raw. Orange and yellow carrots, which came originally from Europe and the Middle East, contain beta carotene with some alpha-carotene, both of which are orange pigments.
Visit our fruit and veg section for more growing guides
Did you know…?
Nikolai Vavilov, a famous Russian botanist who researched food crops for his government in the 1930s, discovered an abundance of wild carrots in Afghanistan and Turkestan. This led him to believe this area was the natural home of the carrot.
However, it’s hard to say when carrots started to form a significant part of man’s diet because their soft tissues rot away to nothing, leaving little archaeological evidence. Carrot seeds (which were eaten for medicinal reasons) have been found on Neolithic sites so it seems certain that this vegetable has been consumed for five thousand years - although it might have been the seeds and not the root.
Written documents reveal that carrots were being grown for their roots by the 12th century in Northern Africa before spreading across Europe. The large fertile area of Morocco (sandwiched between the Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains) is a site to behold even today. Visit any Moroccan souk and the vegetables will astound you.
The carrot is the king of the umbellifers and one of our most popular vegetables. It’s often said (although it’s disputed by some) that Dutch plant breeders deliberately bred orange carrots to honour their king, William of Orange, in the 17th century. However, having grown lots of different coloured carrots in recent years I have discovered that little can beat the flavour of an orange carrot. Perhaps orange roots were selected for flavour, not royal loyalty.
Modern carrot cultivars are descended from the Dutch originals developed over three hundred years ago. The almost coreless 'Amsterdam Forcing' is still my preferred early-season carrot because the bright-orange pointed roots bulk up quickly.
The French also developed many varieties in the 18th and 19th century. The still available, long tapered 'St Valery' (an orange carrot with a yellow core) was highly popular in the 1880s.
By the time of James 1 (1566-1625) carrots were being grown in Britain along with the following roots - parsnips, scorzonera, horseradish, radish and skirrets. The carrot roots were probably small, forked and a dull brown-purple.
These were quickly ousted as the fatter, bright-orange roots arrived from the Dutch. The Victorians didn’t only use the carrot as a vegetable. It was sweet enough to be used in cake recipes, even then, so carrot cake is nothing new. It was also a cake ingredient during the Second World War shortages.
In the distant past, the carrot, parsnip and skirret (which were a similar dirty white, quite often) would have been confused as the same plant because they were all similar and often called by the same name. So when the Romans talk about a pointed Carrot amphora (for storing oil) it may be that the vegetable was called a carrot after the container and not the other way round. However it was Galen (circa second century AD.) who called it Daucus to distinguish it from the Parsnip.
Distinguishing between the history of the carrot and parsnip prior to this date is a difficult matter.
Visit the World Carrot Museum for more fascinating information about carrots