14 karat carrot lessons

Carrots are one of the backbone crops of any subsistence homestead. They are full of vitamins, grow without much trouble once they germinate, and store for a long time.

There is plenty of information about how to grow and store them available in print and online that make producing and keeping a bumper crop seem nearly automatic.

But, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. Seven Trees enjoys a wonderful climate for cool-weather crops, and also for bugs that enjoy eating those crops, namely the dreaded carrot rust fly. This same climate doesn’t usually lend itself to traditional-style root cellaring because winter temperatures are often not stable or cold enough to maintain proper storage conditions. Yet another factor we have to consider are the rodent-eradicators employed by Seven Trees. Carrot seeds need a light and fluffy seed bed to germinate, and in the time it takes them to grow from seedling to foliage jungle, the cats do their best to make use of the light and fluffy soil as an outdoor litter box.

What this means is that common advice about growing carrots needs a lot of modification in our part of the Pacific Northwest.

Luckily we’ve had a few years of trial & error to deal with these challenges, and have settled on a workable combination of timing, labor, and store-bought gear to do the job.

Carrot rust flies are attracted by the scent of disturbed carrot foliage, and will come from quite a distance to lay their eggs in the soil around carrot plants. When they hatch, the larvae head for the roots, burrowing in and eating their way to adulthood. The carrots are left wormy and rot-prone, and the newly-transformed carrot flies start the cycle all over again.

And how did those flies know to zero in on our carrots in the first place? One attractant was the giant soup celery plant nearby. We had noticed funny looking bugs all over the celery plant’s flowers, but didn’t realize until too late that they were carrot flies. Celery and carrots are related, and the flies were enticed to our garden by the heady aroma of celery foliage that we harvested regularly. Once there, it was just a few feet to the carrot bed, where they wrought unseen havoc.

There are two main low-tech strategies mentioned in ‘the literature’ for mitigating the fly foe – plantings timed to avoid usual fly egg-laying periods, and thinning, weeding & harvesting carrots toward evening when the flies stop flying.

With our spring and summer seasons being completely unpredictable in terms of temperature and precipitation, it’s tough to gauge when the little pests might think it’s a good time to invade the carrot patch. We managed to avoid an infestation this year, but hard to tell if timing had anything to do with it or not.

We’ve stopped planting carrots so thickly as to need thinning, hopefully this cuts down on that enticing carrot smell. Planting these tiny seeds one at a time takes more effort though, and is slow and tedious. Any trouble with germination leaves bare spots in the planting bed that need to be reseeded. And the biggest hindrance to germination happens to be the trampling and excavating performed by our felines. They even manage to circumvent the chicken wire and bird mesh barriers we lay over the carrot bed until the plants have plenty of foliage.

The logistical struggle continues at harvest time. The ‘storage’ method of leaving carrots in the ground until needed or until the ground is close to freezing won’t work, because the roots provide ongoing food & habitat for the carrot worms. We tried this one year and ended up with mostly-wormy carrots that we salvaged by dehydrating the few intact ones and feeding critters the rest. We also tried storing bulk carrots in plastic bags in the shop fridge, monitoring & adjusting humidity as best we could. They kept fine for a few months, but we ended up culling quite a few that didn’t take to this kind of cold storage.

All this trial & error has eventually led us to conclude that some store-bought input is called for – row covers.

Narrow-diameter wire hoops get stuck directly into the ground at regular intervals to support light-weight ‘fabric’ over the length of the row. The ends and sides of the fabric (Reemay is one brand name) get tucked in so that bugs (and kitties) can’t get in, but a large percentage of light can pass through. There are different weights of fabric available, with light transmission, frost protection, and longevity being the main variables. As with our mini hoop houses, investing in a piece of plastic that will eventually hit the landfill took some consideration, but we think the payoff will be worth it.

We’ll be able to plant when it’s convenient without the worry of carrot fly worms or busy kitties. This means planting later and leaving the carrots in the ground longer, which addresses the storage challenge. Planting for late fall harvest gives time for average temperatures to drop enough that a tub of sand in the garage will keep the carrots in near root cellar conditions, cool with high humidity. Extended periods below freezing are easy to deal with by throwing cardboard or a tarp over the container, much like we do with potatoes stored there.

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5 thoughts on “14 karat carrot lessons”

  1. Great post about carrot care. How nice to see that a clothes basket size harvest container is still needed to hold you carrots.

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