Carrots give gardeners a bit of a hard time early on. From their extended and intermittent germination period to the tedious processes of weeding and thinning, it’s easy to wonder if they are worth the effort. That is, until you eat one. Garden-fresh carrots, especially the summer planted crop harvested after a light frost, have a fullness of flavor and crispy sweetness that far surpasses that of their grocery store counterparts. If you want to fully reap the rewards of a delicious crop, you’ll need to know how to store carrots from the garden.
The entire carrot plant is edible from the time the seed sprouts, so there is no “wrong” time to harvest carrots. It is also important to note that, as biennials, carrots store quite well in the ground. It could work to just harvest enough for immediate use. But, if you plan to store them for an extended period, there is an ideal maturity window.
Carrots planted for a fall harvest tend to store the best. These should be planted 10 to 12 weeks before the average first fall frost date. Note the “days to harvest” on the seed packet, and count forward that many days from the date on which you planted the seeds. That’s when you should start sampling to see if they are ready to pull. Fully mature, storage-ready carrots have a blunted or slightly rounded tip and well developed flavor.
The ideal time to harvest is on a cool, dry, overcast day after a light frost or two but before a hard freeze. This kind of weather initiates dormancy, which causes the carrot plant to boost energy reserves in the root — which means better flavor.
To harvest carrots, carefully loosen the soil around the roots with a garden fork or spade, being careful not to cut or puncture the carrots. Insert the blade in the ground vertically, as deeply as it will go, a few inches away from the carrots, and gently rock it backward and forward. Then grasp the carrot foliage near the ground and pull it straight out.
Remove the foliage immediately, ¼ to ½ inch above the crown of the root, and rub off any excess soil. There is no need to wash the carrots at this point, and in fact doing so could lead to damage that may worsen during storage. However if the carrots are really dirty, or if you just can’t stand the thought of not washing them, wash them with cold water and let them thoroughly air dry before placing them in storage.
The refrigerator method
Carrots store best in temperatures between 32 and 38°F. (around 3 degrees Celsius) with a relative humidity above 95 percent. Place similarly sized carrots into zip-close plastic storage bags, squeeze the air out, seal them, and store them in the refrigerator on a shelf or in the crisper. Use the smallest roots first. Check all stored carrots weekly, and dispose of any that begin to go bad. Using this method, they will store for two to three months.
The root cellar method
If you have a large crop that won’t fit in the fridge, and an unheated garage, basement, or shed that stays between 32° and 40°, you could store your carrots and other root veggies in sand. You’ll need clean, damp play sand, and enough containers such as 5 gallon buckets, plastic lined crates, or waxed cardboard boxes to hold the crop.
The containers will quickly become very heavy, so it’s a good idea to fill them where they will be stored. Put a layer of sand in the bottom of the container. Next stand up a group of carrots (they should be positioned vertically, as they grow) so they are not touching one another. Cover the carrots with sand, and add more carrots, and more sand until the container is full. Top it off with a layer of sand.
The in-ground method
In areas where the soil remains well above freezing, root quality will decline over winter, so this method is not really viable. In cool climates, where soil temperatures hold near or slightly above freezing, carrots can remain in the ground through the winter with no additional protection. In cold climates, before the ground freezes, the bed should be insulated with 12 to 18 inches of straw or fallen leaves and then covered with plastic. Uncover the bed and sweep aside the mulch as needed to harvest throughout the winter.
The care you take in harvesting and storing carrots affects their storage quality. They can easily become soft and slimy, but if they are properly handled, carrots will last up to a month or more in storage.
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