How to grow your own carrots

In the first outing of our new gardening column, Mat Pember of The Little Veggie Patch Co gives us the lowdown on growing carrots.

By Mat Pember
Every carrot is a lottery. The ones you pull from your patch will look nothing like the long, waxed kind at the supermarket. They will be bent and twisted and hooked from contorting themselves in an effort to find moisture and nutrition, and you never know what shape will come out; the only guarantee is that they're rarely straight.
Growing carrots successfully, and straight if you wish, hinges on the preparation of your soil. For any root to grow freely it needs crumbly soil with even nutrition. Carrots prefer phosphorous (which is important in the production of roots) to nitrogen (which aids leaf production), so don't overdo composting; focus on a phosphorous boost that will direct energy towards the root. Blood and bone is one organic fertiliser that does this best.
Choose a space in the patch that gets full sun; they will, however, also tolerate a bit of cover. We're always going to suggest full sun conditions - that's our professional disclaimer - but it is possible to grow many things, particularly root vegetables in semi-shaded spaces. If you've just harvested a crop of nitrogen-hungry leafy greens such as spinach or silverbeet, plant carrots where they grew because they won't have drawn too much of the phosphorous out of the soil.
The best companion vegetables for carrots in autumn and winter are onions - they help deter the carrot fly - and radishes at all other times. Radishes have the same preparation requirements as carrots and, if they're planted together, the need for thinning will be alleviated. Because radishes develop more quickly than carrots, they're harvested earlier and this thins the planting as you go.
Plant from seed sourced from a reputable supplier - ahem, The Little Veggie Patch Co's Carrot "Cosmic Purple" vintage (heirloom) carrot seeds (pictured), $4.50, for example - and sow directly into the patch in shallow trenches, roughly five to 10 centimetres apart. Use the tip of your finger to create the trench, no more than a centimetre deep, and do your best to sprinkle the tiny seeds as evenly as possible; you're going for every three to four centimetres. One trick is to mix the seed with sand for more even distribution (a must for anyone with fat fingers). Then water in short bursts a couple of times a day, depending on the weather, until they germinate seven to 10 days later.
A few weeks after germination they will no doubt need thinning, so they're not growing on top of each other. (We're yet to meet any human who can perfectly sow carrot seeds.) Cull seedlings so they're spaced two to four centimetres apart, saving those performing the strongest. If a few lie too close together, and you can't bring yourself to cull, that's when the battle for life begins and shapes become interesting. Throw the culled seedlings onto your compost; left in the patch they have a habit of attracting pests - the evil carrot fly in particular.
Carrots need even watering, so use a drip watering system if possible; otherwise be diligent. At young seedling stage (up to four weeks) they will need one watering per day; once older than a month, cut back to two to three waterings per week. And pay attention to the weather; a sprinkling of rain is not enough to replace a watering, so get out there.
After three months your carrots will be nearly ready. Check by scratching around the surface and down the root a little. They can snap in-ground so loosen the soil with a hand fork to avoid casualties. Once you have conducted a feel-test and loosened the soil, gather the family - it's show time.
Five-minute skills: how to sow seeds
As nice as it is to plant from seedling - and have someone do all the early work for you - sometimes the only option is sowing seeds.
First If your seeds have a hard coating, soak them in water overnight to help germination. Beans, peas and beetroot seeds are all examples.
Second Plant your seeds at a depth twice the diameter of the seed itself. For larger seeds, this is quite straightforward, and it's best to create individual planting holes for them. When a seed is no larger than a bee's finger, sow them in shallow trench lines and dust over them with soil; just enough to keep them safe from the wind and birds.
Third Always plant extra seeds in case of poor germination. Yes, this is a back-up plan and we all need one of those from time to time.
Finally Water your seeds. We know by this point you deserve a break, but make sure you keep at it. Your seeds will need regular watering - short and sharp - from the moment they're in.
Mat Pember is co-founder of The Little Veggie Patch Co.
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