Poet John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” And a spring carrot is truly a thing of beauty, if even if it is covered with dirt when pulled from the ground. Wash off the dirt and take a bite of that carrot. You will discover its inner beauty. Time spent in cool spring soil gives home-grown carrots a fresh sweetness that store-bought varieties will never have.
The key to harvesting tasty early carrots is planting the right types. Fortunately, there are plenty to choose from—even if your “vegetable patch” is just a series of containers.
There are two ways to grow carrots for early harvest: let fall-planted carrots overwinter in the ground and harvest them early in spring before they flower. Varieties planted in fall are specialty winter carrots, like the 7-8-inch long, heirloom ‘Imperator’ carrot (75 days), which is ideal for winter growing. If you did not do that, but want carrots as early as possible, sow them in spring as soon as the ground can be worked.
Carrots generally mature in 60-75 days, though faster-growing cultivars are available, which mature in as little as 50 days. When you are checking available varieties online, in print catalogs, or seed displays pay attention to the number of days to harvest and choose those that mature in the shortest time.
Spring Carrot Types
Nantes-type carrots are among the best for spring planting, and they are easy to grow, even if your soil is less than ideal. Choose a variety like ‘Nelson’, which matures is only 58 days and produces 6-inch, blunt-tipped little carrots with both sweetness and great orange color. ‘Nantes Half Long’, which matures in about 70 days, is another good choice in this category and does not form a woody central core like some other varieties. The finger-sized ‘Adelaide’ (50 days) is another Nantes type favored as a baby carrot. Harvested at about 3-inches long, it is perfect for salads.
There are other baby carrot varieties that are fun to eat, easy to grow, and perfect for early planting and harvesting. These are not the “baby carrots” that you buy in the supermarket, which are often processed from broken carrot pieces, but carrots bred for compact size. Not only do these carrots mature quickly, but they are also the right size for raised beds or containers.
The Dutch-bred ‘Yaya Hybrid’ carrot matures in as little as 55 days, producing roots that are 4 to 5-inches long. They are quite sweet, and if you don’t eat them out of hand, they also work well in carrot cakes or muffins. The ‘Caracas Hybrid’ is even shorter and rounder than ‘Yaya’, reaching 2 to 3-inches long. At only 57 days to maturity, it will be ready in a hurry. Though not as perfect as the supermarket babies, they are much tastier. ‘Thumbelina Baby Ball’ matures in as little as 60 days and boasts round, 1 to 2-inch carrots with smooth skin. Once washed, they do not need peeling.
Specialty varieties, like the red-rooted ‘Malbec’ (70 days), crisp, golden ‘Gold Nugget’ (68 days), ivory ‘White Satin’ (68 days), and the award-winning, reddish-purple ‘Purple Haze’ (73 days) are all good choices that will bring extra color to your table.
Growing Spring Carrots
Whatever variety you choose, soil preparation is important. Since carrots are roots that have to push down through the ground, give them an easy time by making sure the soil is loose, rich in organic matter, and free of stones. If you live in an area with clay soil, incorporate lots of well-aged compost, like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, into your soil and work it in well.
When soil conditions are simply impossible, plant carrots in raised beds, or grow them in containers filled with rich potting mix, like Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which is OMRI Listed® for organic gardening. The baby types are excellent for container growing. Follow the seed packet directions for your variety and make note of their days to harvest.
Whether you grow in-ground or in containers, plant carrot seeds in early spring as soon as the soil can be cultivated. They will start growing their best when temperates reach 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Carrots like a sunny spot and regular moisture. In garden beds, make sure the soil has been loosened to a depth of at least 9 inches. (Click here to learn how to double dig for better root crops.) Sow the seeds in rows; spacing is not an issue because seedlings can be thinned after germination. If you feel uncomfortable handling the tiny carrot seeds, you can purchase larger, pelleted seed. Make furrows about 1/4 inch deep and cover the seed with a thin layer of soil (adding a top layer of water-holding peat can aid germination). Water gently so that the little seeds stay put. In as little as 14 days, they will germinate, and your carrots will be on their way.
Novice gardeners are always hesitant to thin seedlings, but it is important to give your carrots some elbow room. When the seedlings are about 1-inch-tall, thin them so they are spaced 3 inches apart.
To keep Peter rabbit and his vole friends away from your garden carrots, surround them with chicken wire fencing that is at least 3-feet tall. The bottom 6 inches should be below soil level, with the ends of the wire bent away from the garden bed. When you water your plants or check on them, make sure that there are no gaps in the fencing where animals have found their way in.
Mark your calendar for the number of days that your carrot varieties need to mature. When they are ready, let your kids join in the harvest! Before harvest, loosen the ground around the carrot a bit with a garden fork and then pull. Otherwise, the carrot tips may break off in the soil. Harvest what you need immediately. The rest of your crop can stay in the ground a few more weeks, or a bit longer if you live somewhere with very cool early spring and summer temperatures.
Growing carrots is easy and will increase your horticultural self-confidence. It is a great thing to do with kids, and it will bring out your inner kid. You may never want a supermarket carrot again.
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