The dark winter months are always pretty lean in the garden, but our favorite, never fail, winter crop is carrots!
Every winter for the last 7 years we have had at least one cold frame full of this wonderful winter time treat! If you have never eaten a fresh harvested winter carrot then you have missed out on one of the sweetest garden treats there is! Growing carrots for winter harvest couldn’t be easier. Carrots are one of the wonders of the winter garden. Cold freezing temperatures change the starches in carrots into sugars! This makes them soooooo delicious!
It’s hard to really give you the full picture of what a fresh winter carrot tastes like. You know that strong underlying “carrot taste” that you get when you are eating most carrots? Well that strong carrot flavor almost completely disappears and is replaced with a very sweet yummy flavor! Elliot Coleman describes them as “Candy carrots” in his book Four-Season Harvest and that is a very good description. They are just sweet, tasty and delicious! Winter carrots are perfect for eating raw! In fact it would be a travesty to cook them in my opinion.
Plant 60 Days Before The First Fall Frost
The key to growing carrots for winter harvest is to get them planted 60 days before your first frost! That 2 months of development is crucial to a good winter crop. For us that planting date is August 1st. There is only a little wiggle room in the planting date when growing carrots for winter harvest .
If I want a good harvest of winter carrots then the latest I can plant is August 10th. You only have about a 10 day window to get them planted. Remember the target is 60 days before your average first frost so figure out your planting date for your area based on that frost date.
I want you to think about what the weather is like 60 days before that first frost?
For most of us August is one of the most brutal months of the summer. It’s hot and dry that time of year. That means your newly planted seeds need a lot of extra attention! Until the new seeds sprout and get established it is important that you water at least once a day. On a hot windy day I might even water twice. You need to keep that top inch of soil moist (but not soaking wet). Those seedlings need all the help they can get when they are getting started.
Other suggestions to help get those carrots germinated well include; adding a shade cloth over the bed or covering the entire bed with moist burlap until the seeds germinate. I have never tried using burlap, but my good friend Jessica over at The 104 Homestead has a great little post that you can find here, that will give you all the needed details.
We like to plant at least one 4 x 8 bed of carrots every year. A bed that size will yield around 20 pounds of carrots over around a 3 month time frame. We tend to hunt for the biggest carrots first, leaving the smaller ones to gain a little size.
Plan on a Cold Frame or a Hoop House
I also think it is very important to cover your carrots with a cold frame or hoop house. Many people just cover the bed with straw or leaves but I think the cold frame just makes things so much easier.
We love to cover our carrot patch with a cold frame. Cold frames keep the soil thawed and make digging the carrots very easy on all but the coldest winter days. That makes harvesting the carrots so much easier! But I know many gardeners who simply cover their carrots up with straw or even just leaves. This protects the plants but doesn’t keep the ground from freezing hard. So harvesting is more of a chore as you have to pry those carrots from the frozen ground.
Carrots love soft, loose, deep soils. Raised beds full of soil composed mostly of compost and peat moss are awesome for growing nice straight carrots. But those same raised beds pose a problem when growing carrots for winter harvest.
Even with a hoop house or cold frame raised beds freeze quicker and “harder” than normal garden soil, this can cause your carrots to go through too many freeze-thaw cycles during the winter and ruin your crop. If you have a choice then plant carrots right in your garden soil for the winter. If you only have raised beds then consider adding an extra layer of protection from the cold by covering your carrots with a fabric row cover and a cold frame.
Don’t forget to thin your patch!
An important thing to remember when growing carrots for winter harvest is to thin your patch. I like to thin my carrots about 6 weeks after they germinate. The problem is that the time to thin your carrots lands right I’m the middle of September, which is peak time for our summer harvest. I know everyone is busy at that time of year canning tomatoes and green beans but it is super important to your future carrot crop that you get out there and thin. If you don’t, your harvest will be full of smaller crowded carrots.
Thin your carrots to give each remaining carrot about 1 square inch of its own space. I know thinning hurts but if you want nice sized carrots to harvest then you need to give them space to grow!
You should also choose a small or medium variety of carrot to grow. Look for a variety that has a mature length of around 4 to 6 inches. Larger carrots just don’t have the time or the sunlight to develop in the fall.
We love the variety “little finger”. This variety grows a nice 4 inch root which is perfect for our heavy clay soil, but there are many great varieties that do well in the winter.
The care of your carrot patch during the winter couldn’t be easier. You will need to water the bed occasionally until late November. But beyond that there really isn’t much required. Simply head out on a sunny day and harvest! Make sure you get out and consistently harvest your carrots.
You don’t want too have many left when the weather finally starts to warm up as spring approaches. The warm weather and longer days that start to arrive for us in late February are a trigger for our carrots to start setting seeds. So if you have many carrots left by the first of March I would suggest you go out and dig them all up. Leaving them too long will mean the tops go to seed and the roots will get bitter and woody.
Cold frames, once they are emptied of carrots, have that added advantage of providing a nicely tilled and warm bed for early spring planting. Most years the cold frame that had our winter carrots becomes the bed where we plant our early spring planting of potatoes!
Growing carrots for winter harvest really couldn’t be easier. It just takes a little care and extra attention in the fall to give you a fantastic harvest all winter long!!