Carrots are some of the easiest outdoor vegetables to grow. Because they grow underground, it can be more difficult to know when to harvest carrots (and when to harvest carrot seeds) compared to cucumbers, peppers, green beans — all those vegetables that grow from flowers on stems. If you’re used to growing underground vegetables, you’ll have no trouble! But if you’re new to vegetable gardening (and carrots in particular), here’s how to know when carrots are ready for harvest.
The key to growing a great carrot crop is to make sure they’re planted in loose, sandy soil. If the soil is right, the rest of the care will be a lot easier to manage. They take roughly two to four months to mature depending on the variety, and you can plant carrots throughout the spring and summer for a continuous harvest through the fall.
Caring for your carrots is rather simple. The soil should be kept moist with shallow watering (which is why it’s important to plant them in loose soil with good drainage, otherwise they’ll get soggy and drown). Carrots can take two to three weeks to germinate (if you’re growing from seeds), so it’s normal to not see growth right away. To help protect the seeds as they germinate, cover with a light layer of fine compost.
Once the seedlings are about an inch tall, thin out the crop so that the plants are three to four inches apart. You should be careful not to damage the roots, so it may be best to use a small pair of scissors to cut the tops instead of pulling the seedlings up. This will give your carrots room to grow and mature. Start with one inch of water a week, then gradually transition to about two inches of water as the roots grow.
When you decide to harvest your carrots will depend on the desired size of maturity. Luckily, once they’ve reached a mature size, the tops will start to poke out of the ground. If you can see your carrots, it’s time to consider harvesting! The smallest you want the carrots to be is about the width of your thumb. However, if you want larger carrots, you can care for them and let them grow longer.
When to harvest carrots also depends on the time in the growing season. Carrots grown in spring and early summer should be harvested before average temperatures get too high. Carrots grown in the summer toward the beginning of fall will actually taste better after the first frost because the frost encourages the carrots to start storing sugars. You should take the proper precautions to protect them from the cold when harvesting after the first frost. This can be done by covering the tops with a thick layer of shredded leaves or extra mulch.
To harvest your carrots, start by gently loosening the soil around the plant with a trowel. This will help limit damage done to the roots by pulling on the tops.
The possibilities are endless! You can make salads, snacks with peanut butter, soups, stews, carrot cake, other baked goods, basically any recipe you can find that has carrots in it. Depending on the size of your harvest, this could span anywhere from one meal to a kitchen full of baked goods. If you have too many carrots, you can always give some to your friends and family, too! They’ll love sharing in the results of your hard work (and hardly anyone turns down free food).
After harvesting and before consumption, carrots should be stored in the veggie drawer of your fridge. They should be in a perforated plastic bag to help prevent them from drying out. Carrots placed directly in the drawer or fridge with no protection will dry out easily and won’t last as long.
How to prepare your carrots
Carrots are very easy to prepare for meals and recipes! There’s most likely only one extra step from the ones you buy at the store. The ones you grow at home will still need to have the tops removed, so you’ll want to chop those off first to make cleaning easier. Wash the carrots in cold water, scrubbing them with a veggie brush or scour side of a new sponge to clean off the dirt. Avoid using any soaps.
Once the carrots are washed, they’re ready to be eaten! You can peel them if you like (or if it’s required for the recipe you’re using), but it isn’t necessary if you’re simply chopping them up for a soup, stew, or salad. If you do peel them, you can toss the peels in a compost pile or save them to be used in a stock.
Now that you know how to tell when carrots are ready for harvest, let’s talk about storing the excess crop. If you don’t think you’ll consume them in a timely manner, the veggie drawer won’t be your best friend. Carrots that have reached the desired maturity can be left in the ground for a little while longer until the temperature gets too warm or there are multiple frost warnings. Simply harvest as-needed until the time comes where all of them need to be dug up.
If you’ve already reached this point, there are ways you can properly store them elsewhere as long as you have the space. Carrots can be stored in a root cellar, basement, or garage where the temperatures average 32 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit. After letting the outside cure/dry for a couple days, place the carrots in a wooden box or bucket (without washing!) that’s filled with peat moss, sawdust, or sand to mimic loose earth. Place the carrots vertically, taking care not to let them touch each other, and make sure they’re well insulted and the tops are covered. You’ll want some moisture to be able to get in so that the carrots don’t dry out, so make sure there isn’t an air-tight seal.
Your excess harvest can be stored in this moist, cold environment for up to six months unless they get exposed to extremely cold temperatures. If you don’t have the space to store a lot of your harvest, making baked goods to give away is great for using up some of the extra crop while making something delicious for family and friends.
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