We gardeners love our sweet, emerging baby plants. It is so encouraging to see masses of vibrant green shoot up so willingly. As a new gardener I remember thinking, "I did it! It worked!" I waited three weeks for these carrot leaves to emerge, how can I possibly choose who lives and who doesn't? From experience I can tell you, just do it! Get those scissors out and thin for the greater good.
Without thinning, plants get crowded. Crowding causes competition for light, moisture, and nutrients, yielding a stressed, stretched, and sometimes mangled crop--especially true for carrots. Crowding also reduces airflow, which encourages fungal disease. You may be tempted to just reach in and pull plants out, but when seedlings are close, it is best to pinch or cut them at the soil line, reducing disturbance to their neighbor's roots.
Thinning doesn't need to be an exact science; it just needs to get done. After losing my tape measure somewhere in the garden, I realized I could use two finger widths to equal an inch; my fingers spread wide is eight inches thumb to pinkie tip; and my fingers held flat and tight together took the space of four inches near the knuckles... instant ruler! Some of my more clever gardener friends mark a spare board with common spacings on each side so they always have a ruler close by.
Carrots, like most root crops, are best sown in place outdoors. They take about three weeks to emerge. Often, I will grow radishes next to carrots because radishes sprout more quickly, reminding me to keep watering an otherwise uneventful brown patch of soil. Radishes are ready a month or more ahead of carrots, so I can safely pull the nearby row before carrots need the space. The holes that radishes leave behind help water get deep down to the sugary, orange roots of carrots. There are a few different ways to sow and thin carrots:
- Sow 1" apart, and thin carrots to 1 every 3″, when 1" tall, in rows 6" apart.
- Make planting holes 3″ apart on a square grid system. Sow 2 seeds per hole; thin to 1.
- Sow every 1½", harvesting every other baby carrot in a couple weeks, allowing the remaining crop to get full size. Using this method, I am able to harvest twice (baby and full-sized carrots), using the same amount of space, weeding, and watering.
My favorite things about carrots are that they are sooo delicious immediately out of the garden--a flavor that diminishes within an hour or so; and they can overwinter right in the ground (in USDA zones 5 and warmer)! Sow carrots two months before your average last frost date as they need enough time to half-way mature (keep in mind growing slows with cool temperatures and shorter days, so mulch your seedlings to help keep them warm, and then they'll survive the winter.) Harvest during warm winter days or in spring/early summer. Pulling carrots in spring is a fun way start to the season; even our dog, Buddy gets in on the fun!