Before we take you through the ABCD of planting carrots, let us tell you that orange carrots are a relatively modern invention. Actually, carrots were originally purple or white. That is the stride that we have made over the years. And that is the reason that carrots have become easy to grows because a lot of research has gone into this crop.
Carrots can grow under a range of climatic conditions, but they perform best under moderate temperatures. They are mostly cultivated as a cool season crop and seed germination occurs between 7°C and 30°C. They also do well where optimum air temperatures are between 16-24°C. But make sure that soil temperatures are below 25°C because above that it may reduce root quality, including root colour. High temperatures can also cause burning of young seedlings. For economic yields, carrots should be grown in regions at altitudes above 700 m. Early-maturing carrot cultivars may grow in the lowlands, but yields will be low and roots will have a poor colour.
Carrots grow best in well-drained soils free of stones. It is a short season crop of 2-3 months with the potential of high yields for family food security and fresh market sales. It does well in the cooler areas of Kenya under both rain-fed and irrigated conditions.
Before you Plant your Seeds
Make sure you have a suitable place to grow your carrots. They need to be grown in full sun, and with well drained soil. Don’t fertilise the soil before planting as it will be too rich and the roots will become distorted. But you can apply some very well rotted manure but only if you dig it in a month before sowing your carrots.
Propagation and planting
Carrots are propagated by seeds. Seeds are sown, often mixed with sand, 1/2 – 1 cm deep in drills 10-15 cm apart in finely prepared soils previously cultivated to a depth of at least 30 cm. Lightly aerate the soil by shallow digging before sowing carrots or sow them in ridge culture (small dams of 10 to 20 cm height) to facilitate mechanical weeding, thinning, and to limit soil borne diseases. In addition, this will allow easier penetration by the carrot root and will also improve water holding capacity.
Seedlings are thinned to 5-8 cm in the rows. Seed requirements (200 plants/m² and 70% germination) for the dominant half-long carrot cultivars, are 4-5 kg/ha. For bigger carrots, the density may be reduced to about 100 plants/m².
Carrots need a deeply cultivated soil to grow to their best, dig down as far as your spade will allow as you turn over the soil. The seeds also need some sunlight to germinate so don’t sow them deeply, it is ok just to sow sparingly on the top of the soil, then just walk over them to press them to the soil. Now just lightly water and you are all done. Don’t grow carrots in soil that get waterlogged as they will rot as they grow. The soil needs to be well drained. Make sure your carrot patch is empty of weeds before sowing.
The great thing about growing your own carrots is that they are so easy to grow. They will tolerate most light soil types like sand to loam, and they don’t succumb to many diseases. Although they will grow quite happily on their own you will need to do some occasional work to get the best results.
The main job to keep an eye on is weeding. Carrots don’t compete well with weeds so pick any weeds out early.
Another way to get the best carrots is to thin them as they grow so they end up 10cm apart. This gives them room to grow to their full size. Thinnings can be eaten in stir-fries or just as they are. Remember that young carrot tops are edible and can be steamed and cooked like other greens.
Make sure you water them well once or twice a week in dry weather and you should be fine.
Carrots that bolt (produce seed) in between normal carrots should be pulled out and fed to livestock. Seed produced this way will not produce good quality carrots. Seed production under tropical highland (above 1200 m) conditions is possible by selecting and harvesting the best quality mature carrot roots and replanting them separately in a corner of the field. Bolting and seed setting soon follows.
Crop rotation is essential to reduce soil-borne diseases and pests. Mulching (rice straw or dried grass) after sowing is recommended to encourage germination. Seedlings may be earthed-up when roots start swelling to keep them cool and prevent green tops. Temperature of 15 to 20°C is optimal for seed development. In hot weather, light overhead shade is beneficial. Under such conditions carrots grow well under the canopy of fruit trees. Irrigation during dry spells is necessary to prevent irregular root development. Nutrient requirements of carrots are particularly high for potassium (200-300 kg/ha) and low to medium for nitrogen (0-90 kg/ha). Carrots are sensitive to high Chlorine concentrations and more susceptible to diseases at very high soil pH. Liming is recommended when pH is below 5.5. Well-decomposed organic manures are beneficial when applied moderately (10-20 t/ha). Fresh organic matter such as farmyard manure or manure from a leguminous crop can induce forked roots, which are difficult to clean and to market.
Young carrot seedlings are weak and grow slowly. Therefore, it is essential to keep weeds under control for the first few weeks after germination. Cultivate shallowly with a hoe.
Deep cultivation may injure the roots. Weeding and thinning of young plants can be very labour intensive, for which reason most families grow fairly small beds at any one time.
Pests and Problems
Luckily we don’t have a lot of carrot problems. Usually any problems you do have will be related to soil and watering.
Forking roots – usually caused by heavy soil like clay or stony soil. With these soils it is better to grow shorter varieties.
Splitting roots – This is a watering problem. Try to keep water constant as a heavy soaking while they are full grown will cause splitting.
Tough cores – this is a problem of some of the older varieties when they are close to going to seed. Try to pick these when they are young.
Small carrots – if you have planted seeds for a large variety but they are not growing, and their colour is pale this is usually caused by cold weather. They will grow a bit more when the weather warms up but keep an eye on them as they may bold at this time.
Seedlings sown too thick – this is very easy to do. The best way to make sure your carrots have room to grow is to mix your carrot seed with an equal amount of clean sand and radish seed. Sow thinly then pick the radishes as they get to a good size. The radishes grow much quicker than the carrots so as you pick those, you leave room for the carrots to spread.
Because of their limited space requirements and early growing habits, carrots are ideal for intercropping between other crops such as tomatoes, lettuce or capsicums and because of their fragrant leaves can help keep pest levels low. Other crops good for intercropping with carrots include garlic, dwarf bean, onion, parsnip, leek, small peas, pea mange-tout (snow peas), and radish. The most profitable example of an association is that of carrots and leeks. Carrots have very deep roots that extract nutrients deep in the soil, whereas leeks have extremely superficial roots, which help the crop to extract nutrients near the soil surface. Moreover, carrots can drive away worms from leeks, while leeks can drive away flies from the carrots
Carrots are ready to harvest at any time you want. You can pull them when they are as small as your finger for sweet, baby carrots that are perfect for salads and eating raw, or you can wait till they are fully grown when they will be great for steaming, grating for carrot cakes, or any other use you want to put them to.
Carrots are mostly harvested manually by pulling up the roots at the leaves as long as the soil is moist and soft. If the soil has dried, it will be necessary to use either a spade or similar tool to loosen the soil and harvest the roots. Carrots are usually ready for harvesting 60-85 days after sowing. Mature roots should be orange-coloured internally down to the blunt tip.
A good market price can be fetched from young carrots with a fresh top, but leaving the top on dries out the root quickly and reduces the marketing period of the crop. An alternative is to trim the top back to about 2 cm and package attractively.
For mature carrots the tops are trimmed down completely to avoid storage rots before marketing. Carrots can remain in good condition for 100-150 days when the foliage is removed and they are stored at 1-4° C with 95-100% relative humidity. Carrots should be stored separately from other vegetables to prevent a bitter flavour induced by ethylene (a colourless gas with a sweet odour that is produced by many fruits and vegetables that accelerates the ripening process). Generally carrots store better when they are mature and harvested under moist conditions, and undamaged and free of diseases and pests.
Carrots have to be one of the most satisfying crops to grow at home. You can grow a lot in a small area and they taste so good. It is fantastic to know that you can be self-sufficient, even in a small way, and able to provide your family with fresh food.