March 7, 2010

I realize the timing of this article may seem odd. Here we are, looking forward to Spring, yet my mind is stuck in the winter garden! But please bear with me, and let me explain.

A plethora of carrots (plus one rather pathetic parsnip)

Earlier today I dug up all the carrots that remained from this past winter. Given the unseasonably warm weather, I was concerned they wouldn't hold in the ground much longer. After all, being biennial, spring is when they naturally turn their thoughts to love - well, to reproducing anyway. Once these plants begin generating new roots and sending up new growth, they'll rapidly start burning through the sugar reserves they've stored through the winter - at that point, they're no longer something most people are interested in eating. Refrigerated they will remain in pretty good quality for quite a few weeks (as long as you maintain their humidity) - certainly much longer than they'll hold in my garden at this point.

But back to the matter at hand. Growing winter carrots offers a number of benefits I've discussed before, but I don't think I've ever really mentioned the main reason I like them so much. It's very simple - carrots are probably the most dependable winter crop I can grow in this climate. Sudden severe cold, like we experienced back in December, can quickly wipe out most winter greens if a gardener isn't careful. Rabbits, deer, and other pests can make short work of cabbage and Brussels sprouts. But carrots just chug along, safely nestled in the ground. Generally I'll lose a few to mice, but somehow discovering one or two carrots doesn't seem to lead them to the rest of the crop! Plus you have to love a crop that can grow well on whatever leftover nutrients are in the soil from the past year!

There's another root crop that shares all of these traits, of course. Parsnips may even be a bit hardier than carrots, and I can't remember the last time a mouse ate even one of my parsnips. But parsnips are significantly more work than carrots to get going. They germinate significantly slower than carrots, which means more care must be taken by the gardener since these root crops are being sown during the longest days of the year. Parsnips also tend to be slower-growing, so they tie up your garden bed for a longer period of time. With carrots, I know I can sow anytime in July and end up with plenty of carrots to eat through the winter.

The main problem some people run into around here is with carrot rust fly maggots. If these are an issue in your garden, you'll need to grow your crop under a floating row cover. In that case, sow your seeds a week or two earlier, and space the plants out slightly more - this is necessarly to compensate for the small drop in light intensity the plants will receive under the fabric. In my garden, carrot rust flies are only an occasional nuisance. Grown without protection, I lose perhaps one or two carrots. More often the maggots just damage a small section of the carrot which I just cut away.

Over the past couple decades I've tried many different varieties of carrots in my fall and winter garden, and almost all have performed admirably. I have noticed that, in my garden at least, unusually colored varieties (purple, yellow, white) are occasionally more erratic in terms of yield than the more typical orange types. You will get much better results from any carrot variety if you grow them in raised beds, or at least block out a large square area that you make certain never to step in - compact soil is probably the single biggest problem when growing carrots. I've had good results sowing my carrots in rows just three or four inches apart, as long as I thin the plants in each row so they're no closer than an inch or two apart. Sown like this, even a small patch of carrots can yield a lot of tasty winter eating!

So while you're sorting through your pea and lettuce seeds this spring, be sure you've also remembered to order plenty of carrot seed as well!

Further Reading

Growing Great Carrots
FAQ on Vegetable Culture - Root Crops
Winter Vegetable Gardening

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This page was last updated November 18, 2013