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Get Loose and Light to Grow Sweet Carrots


Q. I love carrots, but mine never develop that sweet, crisp taste. I've tried growing different varieties and harvesting early and late, but always the same result: blah, dull, boring carrots with very little flavor. I've had similar results with beets. But beans, tomatoes, and peppers all do well. Why can't I grow good carrots? Thank you so much.
    ---Maureen in Harleysville PA
Last year I grew some nice looking carrots, but they lacked color and taste. What can I do better next year? Thanks.
    ---Zeb near Hohenwald, Tennessee (about 70 miles south of Nashville)
A. When above-ground plants do well and root crops do poorly, it's generally due to heavily compacted soil. Imagine trying to push your little self through dense clay! Poor taste in carrots can also be due to an over abundance of nutrients (especially the most common of the Big Three plant foods); timing; the weather during the growing season; and variety choice.

Let's start—as all good gardeners should—with the soil. You can't expect to sow carrot seed in rock hard clay (especially clay that you've been further compacting with your big feet) and get anything other than some green growth up top and a small, unhappy and misshapen rear end underground. Carrots require the absolute loosest soil of pretty much anything we grow.

That's a raised bed (where the soil is never walked on) with excellent drainage at the very least. Even better would be a raised bed into which you have mixed a good amount of something to loosen and lighten the soil, like perlite (a mined, volcanic mineral that's popped into little balls that look like Styrofoam) or a soil-free mix designed for seed-starting.

Better than that would be a nice deep container with excellent drainage filled with (ideally) one-third soil-free mix, one-third perlite and one-third light, screened compost. This is not a place for any kind of {quote} 'topsoil' or garden soil—even if your garden soil is naturally sandy. (But if that is the case, try growing some carrots in a raised bed of that sandy soil plus some compost.)

Nutrients: carrots are the opposite of heavy feeders; too much of any nutrient, even supplied in organic form, can make them taste woody and look hairy. This is especially true of nitrogen, which makes for the worst tasting carrots—so don't use any kind of manure or chemical fertilizer. Two inches of high-quality compost worked into the soil (or even better, into a soil-free mix) should be all the food they need. If you must add something, carrots do like a little phosphorus and potassium (the P and K members of the N-P-K scale), but go light.

Carrot seed germinates best in warm soil, the roots grow best in warm (but not hot) weather and the taste is always best when those roots are harvested after a cold night. This makes late summer the ideal time to start them. On average, it takes carrots about 70 days to mature. So if I (in my 'kind of Zone 6', 'kind of Zone 7' PA garden) planted some seeds on July 1st, they would sprout right away in the warm soil, the green tops would love the sun, and then the nights should be getting cool by harvest time. July 15th would be better, and August 1st would be ideal, insuring that I could harvest after the kind of cold night/light frost that really concentrates the sugars.

If you MUST plant in the Spring, I strongly suggest you do so in a container that's big enough for the roots to go down nice and deep but manageable enough for you to move outdoors easily. Sow the seeds while the container is inside, then move it outside after the carrots have sprouted.

No matter what or when: soak the growing medium really well, sow the seeds thickly, cover with the tiniest amount of soil free mix and then either mist the surface morning and night (outdoor plantings exposed to sun) or cover with clear plastic wrap (indoor sowing in a container for moving outdoors after germination). If wrap you choose, remove it when the first sprouts appear. Keep misting every morning until the sprouts all have some green leaves. Then thin them until the remaining plants are several inches apart in all directions (the more room between the remaining plants the better quality carrots you'll pull) and begin watering normally. Mulch with compost or a thin layer of shredded leaves to prevent weeds.

Again, no matter what or when, keep the seed packet handy and harvest a test carrot exactly when the plants reach the Days to Maturity indicated. If the root is light in color, wait to harvest the rest—they're still immature. If the color is right but the taste isn't there, you waited too long. For the sweetest flavor, harvest first thing in the morning, preferably after a cool night.

Variety choice: Most sources consider the blunt-tipped Nantes types to be sweeter and more reliable for home growers than the long and slender Imperator types commonly found in supermarkets. The somewhat short and stubby Danvers and Chantenay types are also good bets for backyard growers.