In my last post I mentioned that carrots are difficult to grow here. I think they would win the prize for the vegetable crop most likely to be given up on. So many customers at the garden centre have told me “I just can’t grow carrots” or “I don’t grow carrots anymore, it didn’t work for me”. I always encourage them to give it another go, and offer my solutions to our carrot growing difficulties.
Carrots can provide a lot of food in a small space if you grow them in blocks rather than rows. I’m always amazed at how many carrots come out of a 3’ x 6’ area. Sow them thickly, and as you begin to harvest baby carrots it creates room allowing those that are left to grow bigger and bigger. It’s an efficient use of space and creates very friable, aerated soil.
Carrots hate compacted soil, and if you grow them in rows you are constantly walking up and down the rows compressing the soil making it more difficult for the carrots to size up. Not to mention that the ratio of carrots/square foot is hugely decreased if you grow carrots using the row system and all that bare soil is likely to grow weeds resulting in more work for less food!
I prepare my seed bed for carrots by digging in peat moss, coir (coconut fibre) and sand and I remove as many rocks as possible. A little compost, organic fertilizer and bone meal can be helpful, but if you add too much nitrogenous material you may end up with carrots that are all tops and no bottoms. If you want to add compost or manure it’s a good idea to do so in the fall and let winter rains dilute excess nutrients.
A few years of this treatment and you’ll have really nice soil, I’ll be happy when I can easily plunge my hand into the garden up to my wrist. The carrot seed bed always gets fussed over more than other planting areas, and over time the entire garden benefits because I always rotate the crops in my vegetable garden to limit disease and pests.
Rotation is critical, but it seems that many gardeners overlook this strategy or resist it because they think certain crops do better in certain areas. That may be true, but they won’t continue to do so year after year for a number of reasons, so build a rotation plan, or at least map where you plant things each year so that you can avoid repeats.
I often seed my carrots in a spot that previously held a crop that uses a lot of nitrogen, and never put them where I grew a root crop the year before, because of root devouring pests like wireworms. These nasty critters are also often found in large numbers in new gardens that were recently under sod. Unfortunately I haven’t yet found an effective control that I am comfortable using around food crops. Beneficial nematodes are recommended, but seem to have limited effectiveness and they are very expensive! I’d need to produce a lot of carrots to make it worthwhile.
My strategy at this point consists of turning the soil in the spring when it warms up (which I’m doing anyway to prepare the seed bed) and picking out and killing as many as possible. They have a thick skin and don’t squish easily so I tear them apart; it’s slightly disgusting but then so are carrots full of wireworms! Then I go inside the house and invite the birds to come eat their fill.
We are also plagued by a pesky insect called carrot rust fly, which can easily ruin your crop (unless you like eating wormy carrots!), but I have developed a dependable method of excluding them that doesn’t require pesticides. After my carrot seedlings have produced their first true (carrotlike) leaves, I cover them with remay cloth and they spend the rest of the summer under remay, only removing it to weed, thin and harvest.
The adult flies locate your carrots by smell and lay their eggs at the base of the plants. When the larvae hatch they burrow into and consume what should be YOUR food. If your carrots are under remay the flies can’t get to them, so no damage and no pesticides required. It’s an elegant solution as long as you don’t mind the “white pillows” it appears you are growing in your garden.
When I started using remay it was recommended to dig the edges of the fabric into the soil to foil the carrot rust fly and keep it from blowing away, but I found this method unsatisfactory. It was very time-consuming, ditto for using a bunch of rocks to hold it down because you need to use a lot of them to prevent the fabric from billowing up and letting the flies in. My solution; rebar! It’s heavy enough to hold the fabric firmly, yet removal and replacement to tend to the carrots is quick. Another benefit is that you can roll excess remay around the rebar and slowly over the growing season, as your carrot tops grow you can unroll more fabric. Doing so keeps everything neat and tidy, and as I learned from experience, if you leave the remay too loose early in the growing season it tends to flop around and get sucked into the lawnmower as it passes by. And it doesn’t function well when it’s full of holes!
Carrot Rust Fly can produce several generations during one season, but will be done with the first decent frost, so you can remove your remay after that for ease of harvest. I tried this, but developed another pest problem – of a canine nature. My clever dogs love carrots, and once the tablecloth is gone – the buffet is open!
Remay cloth also helps regulate moisture levels in the soil by preventing excess evaporation, but you do have to remember to water and you won’t be able to see the soil around the carrots to judge when they are thirsty, so pay attention; dry carrots are hairy carrots, and no one likes a hairy carrot.
This seems like a long explanation, but growing carrots isn’t really time-consuming, it’s just a matter of planning and preparation, and once you’ve got it set up you can look forward to harvesting an abundant crop of tasty carrots over many months. And as long as your garden is relatively well-drained, they might keep through the winter, becoming ever sweeter with the cold temperatures. I hope that this information inspires you to try growing carrots.