Boy do we love carrots.
Of all the vegetables we grow, its the one that has consistent demand from customers through the entire year, and the one we can get our boys to eat year round as well!
We grow only hybrid carrots and if you have tasted them grown organically you probably have been wowed by the crunchy sweetness as well. They are one of our 'conversion' vegetables, a crop we feed to sceptics to organic growing who ask, "is there really a difference?" One bite of our carrots grown in the winter or early spring is enough to convince them, and they always come back for more.
If you have ever grown carrots, you probably have noticed one annoying little quirk of this delicious vegetable, they are REALLY hard to grow! They take forever to germinate and are very fussy about moisture and weeds in the first few weeks of life.
To grow them successfully and consistently as a market gardener requires some tricks, and I have a few in my arsenal that allow me to grow beautiful carrots year round in a zone 6a climate in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Trick #1-High Organic Matter
This is a tip that applies across the board to anything you are growing, you can't have to much compost on your garden. As long as you are testing your soil annually and also testing the compost you are adding to address nutrient imbalances, compost will only improve your garden for the long term.
For carrots specifically, because they take 5-8 days to germinate in summer weather, and because the tiny seeds are very sensitive to crusted soil, high organic matter in the top 2 inches of the soil is a great way to increase your germination success.
Ideally you have been amending your garden beds with compost at least annually with compost, but if your beds are new, never fear! Just add the compost to the bed before you seed the carrots at around 1-2 inches deep. Just remember not to till or mix it in to the soil below. The idea is to have the organic matter on the soil surface (just as nature does, think of the soil on the forest floor) to hold moisture around your seeds. The earthworms will do the job of mixing and incorporating the compost into your soil over time, all you have to do is add it to the surface.
Trick #2-Kill the Weeds!
These guys will be the downfall of the most successful stand of young carrots. If you don't get a handle on your weeds before your carrots come up, you will face the daunting task of pulling them up by hand, and believe me you don't want to do that. It's time consuming, back-breaking work. And because the weed and carrot roots are all mixed up, you end up disturbing and pulling out as many carrots as you save and it ends up being an exercise in frustration.
As a market gardener trying to grow carrots profitably, if I somehow miss the weeding window and get a weedy stand of carrots, I usually cover or flame off the entire bed and start again. If I have to spend time hand weeding the entire bed, the whole planting is a sunk cost and I'm better off cutting my losses and reseeding.
This is a whole topic unto itself but the basic idea is you want to flush out and kill the weed seeds at the soil surface before your carrots come up. One of the best ways to do this is with a tarp or piece of thick landscape fabric. One to two weeks before seeding, water your bed well and cover with plastic. This will hold in the moisture and cause the weed seeds to germinate. About a week later, simply pull back the plastic, irrigate again, and recover the bed. The germinated weeds will be unable to photosynthesize under the plastic, and will die. You can repeat this as many times as you wish to flush out multiple rounds of weeds from your bed. The last time you do it, you want to seed your carrots, along with a tiny patch of beets, in the bed and cover it up. The beets germinate 1-2 days before the carrots and are a good indication of when to remove the plastic. Wait around 4-5 days and start checking under the plastic for germinating beets. As soon as you see them, you know your carrots are 1-2 days away, and you can remove the plastic.
At this point you can go crazy and do what the pros do, use fire to kill the weeds! If you have a tiger torch or even a soldering torch, use it to kill any weeds along with the geminated beet seeds by running back and forth along the soil surface. You don't need to burn the weeds, just heat them up and they will die. You will now have a completely weed free bed for your carrots to pop up into in the next day or two, just remember to keep the soil moist with very gentle watering.
All plants need water, but germinating carrots are particularly fussy. They need to stay consistently moist through the germinating period, which can last a week or more. If you have added your organic matter to your growing area and prepped it with plastic to minimize the weeds, the last step after seeding is to water the bed thoroughly and cover it with the plastic to lock in the moisture. The plastic stops evaporation and acts as a little greenhouse over your soil, warming it up and keeping it nice and moist for your little carrot babies. Remember water is life for your plants, and they will repay your efforts with abundant healthy growth.
Organic Matter-make sure you are germinating your carrots in high organic matter compost. If your beds are new and you haven't amended them with large amounts of compost yet, add a 1 to 2 inch layer on the top of your bed and seed directly into it. The organic matter will hold the moisture around the seed, and avoid the crusting issues that can happen on the soil surface.
Weeds-use the plastic , propane torch and water as well as the no dig method before planting to take care of weeds before they become a problem. You will be amazed at the results if you prepare the bed well ahead of the coming carrot crop.
Moisture-make sure before you cover your planted carrots that the soil is completely saturated with water. This is key to trigger the germination and ensure that the moisture lasts the 5-8 days it will take for the seeds to wake up and grow.
So there you have it. If you pay attention to these key ingredients in your carrot recipe, you will have great success all year round growing these delicious and nutrient packed roots.
Good luck and have fun out there!