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When (or if) to harvest carrots

Harvesting carrots

Last week, I mentioned carrots on my soon-to-harvest list, and a couple of you rightly pointed out that you don't have to harvest carrots before the frost.  In fact, carrots get sweeter if you wait to dig them until cold weather has moved in, and some people even leave their carrots in the ground over the winter.  However, there are some reasons you might choose to harvest your carrots early.

Carrots in the garden

If you get a heavy layer of snow that stays put all winter long, you're in the perfect spot for overwintering carrots.  Counterintuitively, the snow protects the ground so it doesn't freeze and the garden row acts just like a good root cellar.  Those of us who garden further south, though, experience ground freezes and thaws throughout the winter months, and each freeze-thaw cycle pushes the carrots a bit further out of the ground.  The tops quickly freeze and then rot, so you can't count on carrots overwintering in our area.

Basket of carrots

You can get around this issue by mulching the carrots heavily in the fall.  However, if your ground doesn't freeze, varmints are very likely to move into that soft, warm bed and nibble on your roots all winter long.  Which brings me to one of the reasons I'm harvesting my carrots early this year: a vole found the tasty carrots in one bed and started gnawing off the bottoms, so I decided to get those roots before they're all eaten up.

No-till garden

The other reason I'm harvesting now has to do with maturity of the carrots.  In order to overwinter carrots in the garden, you need to plant them at just the right time so they're fully mature just as the ground gets too cold for them to grow any further.  This is very tricky since you never know if autumn will be cold and dark or warm and sunny, so I tend to just plant early (at the beginning of July) to ensure I get in a good crop.

Overmature carrots

The downside of early planting, though, is that good weather may mean your carrots head past mature and into overmature before cold weather halts the plants' growth.  You can't really count on the days to harvest listed on the seed packet to get this maturity data since Rinsing carrotsshorter days slow carrots down, but if you pull out small carrots throughout their time in the ground to eat and thin the bed, you'll clearly see when the roots stop bulking up and start heading over the hill by splitting or rotting.

And that's why I harvested a third of our carrots Monday.  We got 23 pounds from two beds (and I've probably already harvested another 10 or 20 pounds from those beds over the last couple of months), which filled up my crisper drawer.  Yikes!  Now I have to figure out where to store the other three beds of carrots.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.


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Here in piedmont South Carolina I sow my carrots in September and eat them in salads all winter long. I've read that they keep well in sand in root cellars, thought I've never done it. Last year's carrots, grown in oak tree shade, are still showing green tops. I imagine they're quite woody now.
Comment by Errol Tue Oct 16 09:11:33 2012
We love carrots here. The 7 (going on 8) of us can easily eat 10 or more pounds per week all year long. Sadly I've never been able to get them to even sprout. I will try again next year. This year I learned that seeds in the ground need regular watering in order to sprout. Seriously. I didn't know this until I'd been "gardening" for 9 years. I'm such a poser. Real carrots, here we come!
Comment by Lindsey in AL Tue Oct 16 09:40:49 2012

Where WILL you store all that. Beautiful harvest? I have read that a cheap "root cellar" can be made by burying a metal (. Plastic will collapse) trash can up to the lid,then piling mulch in a mound a foot deep around . When needed, just pull back the mulch and open lid. I was thinking of trying this, since we don't have a root cellar either, and the thought of hand digging one is so daunting. Fortunately, the guy who owned this house before us was an avid hunter, and actually built an insulated "meat locker" to hang and age meat- it has a compressor to run a cooling unit to maintain temperature, but I've discovered that in fall and winter , when I really need it, it stays above freezing and below 50 degrees without any help ( on really hot days it has gotten a bit above 50) it only froze in there when we had 20 below zero temps, and then only around the edges. It is pretty critter proof, so I'm putting produce and my home canned stuff in there and hoping for the best. Worst case I can use some light bulbs to slightly raise temps if we get super cold. It won't have the nice humidity of a root cellar, but I think it wll do. I'm hoping so!

Comment by Deb Tue Oct 16 10:39:17 2012
Nice carrots!
Comment by Sara Tue Oct 16 15:24:57 2012

Daddy --- I was thinking of adding that, further south, folks might not have the freeze-thaw problem we do, but wasn't sure enough of my data to say that. Thanks for chiming in with your experiences!

Lindsey --- A lot of seeds just sprout on their own, so not knowing they might need regular watering isn't as crazy as it sounds. Carrots are on the harder end there, though, often needing coolish weather as well as rain to sprout.

Deb --- I'm jealous of your cold storage! That sounds nearly as good as a root cellar to me. We're probably going to see if we can dig out the fridge root cellar and get it going, and barring that I'm thinking of a simple in-ground clamp, maybe just lined with hardware cloth and topped with bales of straw. Too much produce to fit in current storage is a pretty good problem to have. :-)

Sara --- Thanks!

Comment by anna Tue Oct 16 17:17:36 2012
Nice harvest! Here in central North Carolina I try to get 2 crops of carrots, I plant the first in March and harvest them in early summer, leaving them too long in the ground tends to lead to the rotting and splitting problem for sure, plus there is some critter- miner worms maybe- that will start to tunnel into the roots as it gets hotter, I try to get them out by end of June. Then I plant the fall carrots in August and harvest them all winter long. Your point about heaving is good though and a heavy mulch is useful. Storage is an issue- I love the sound of that insulated room, I really need a place to keep storage crops like potatoes and onions cooler, the fridge is not big enough!
Comment by Maria Hitt Thu Oct 18 12:49:26 2012
Maria --- We do two rounds of carrots too. I always harvest the summer ones a bit later than I should --- we get the same critter damage you mentioned when I wait. But it's wonderful to have fresh, crunchy carrots pretty much 12 months of the year right from our farm!
Comment by anna Thu Oct 18 13:16:03 2012