While carrots are certainly not the most expensive veggie at the grocery store, most families eat a lot of them. In fact, carrots are among the most popular vegetables in the world. They are also a staple crop for many home gardeners. While we have already written about the nuances of growing straight carrots and the importance of thinning carrot seedlings, we’ve never shared information on when to harvest carrots for peak flavor and shelf life. This article will teach you when to dig carrots based on both how you plan to use them and when they were planted. Let’s dig in.
How do you know when to harvest carrots?
Growing carrots is an exercise in patience. Going from tiny seed to thick root when you can’t see what’s happening beneath the soil can seem daunting, especially for new gardeners. Carrot seeds take a long time to germinate, and the fragile seedlings sometimes fall prey to hungry slugs, rabbits, and other garden critters. But, if you care for them properly by making sure they receive enough water and sunlight (and you manage to protect them from those critters), your carrot crop will soon be ready to harvest.
There are several ways you can figure out when to harvest carrots. The first is based on the planting date and the number of days it takes each different carrot variety to mature. The second is based on visual cues. In the next two sections, I’ll share more about how each of those two methods works. Then, we’ll discuss the subtle differences between harvesting carrots for immediate eating and harvesting carrots that you intend to store for later consumption.
When to harvest carrots based on the days to maturity
Just like tomatoes or peppers, each carrot variety matures at a slightly different rate. The “days to maturity” noted in the seed catalog or on the seed packet is how many days it will take that particular variety to go from seed sowing to full-size root.
Some carrot varieties, like ‘Napoli’ and ‘Mokum’, are ready to pick in 55 days, while others, like ‘Danvers’, take 65 days. Long-maturing varieties, like ‘Merida’ and ‘Mignon’, take 80+ days. Though you might think it’s the case, the days to maturity of each variety has little to do with the size of the fully grown carrot. There are some small carrots that take a long time to mature, just as there are some big carrots that mature relatively quickly. If you have a short growing season and want carrots that grow quickly, be sure to choose a variety that requires a shorter number of days to maturity. If you plan to leave your carrots in the ground for fall and/or winter harvest, a selection with a longer number of days to maturity may be best.
Picking carrots at the right stage of growth
The good news is that, unlike tomatoes and peppers, carrots are very forgiving. They can sit in the ground for weeks beyond their maturity date with little to no ill effects. Yes, sometimes carrots left in the ground way too long will split open, but this isn’t the norm. For carrots, the number of days to maturity is more of a suggestion.
One of the perks of growing carrots is that you can pick them at pretty much any stage. If you want slender baby carrots for a gourmet meal, you can tug them from the soil in as little as 30 or 40 days. But if you want full-size roots, wait until you hit the days to maturity noted on the seed packet or even a few weeks beyond that. It would be easy to make note of carrot-planting day on your calendar or in a garden journal so you can keep track of when it’s time to start thinking about making the harvest.
When to harvest carrots based on visual clues
If you don’t want to mess around with keeping track of days to maturity, there’s another, more casual, way to know when to harvest carrots. I grow 6 to 8 different types of carrots in my garden every year, and I sow a new row of seeds every few weeks all season long. This means I always have carrots “in stock”. But it makes it a challenge to remember which row was planted when and what variety is growing there. So, my primary method for knowing when to pick carrots is through visual cues, namely looking at their shoulders.
Checking carrot shoulders
Around about the time I think they’ll be ready, I check the shoulders of the plants every few days. The shoulder of a carrot is the top of the root, just below where the greens emerge. Unless you cover them with mulch, the shoulders of carrots naturally peek up out of the soil as they mature. The shoulders also start to widen to the mature girth of the root.
If the shoulders are only as thick as a pencil, you can pick and use them as gourmet baby carrots. If you harvest them when they reach as thick as a thumb, the skin will be very thin, and they are great for fresh eating. But, if you wait until they are between the diameter of a nickel and a quarter, you’ll have the largest, juiciest roots. Carrots this size are excellent for cooking. Large roots like this will have slightly thicker skin. This is the stage where the carrots are better for long-term storage, too.
In addition to knowing when it’s time to dig carrots, it’s also important to consider the time of day to make your harvest and the best soil conditions for the job. Let’s talk about that next.
The best time of day to dig carrots
If possible, harvest your carrots first thing in the morning, when the plant is less stressed and not wilted or strained from the heat of the day. This is particularly important if you plan to store your carrots long-term. You want them to have the highest internal moisture content possible so they are less likely to desiccate during storage. However, if you will be eating your carrots within a few days, the time of day that you make the harvest doesn’t matter quite as much. That being said, there are a few more factors to consider when it comes to harvesting carrots for immediate use. Let me share them with you in the following section.
When to harvest carrots for immediate eating
Aside from the time of day, soil moisture conditions also play a part in determining when to harvest carrots for fresh eating. In addition to making them easier to pull out of the ground, watering your carrot patch the day before you harvest ensures the roots are juicy and flavorful. This is especially important if you’ve had an extended dry spell or constant fluctuations between wet and dry soil throughout the growing season. I often wait to harvest my carrots until the day after a nice, deep rain. It makes the process a lot more fun (and far less dusty!).
When to harvest carrots for storage
There are two basic ways you can store carrots for future use. The first is inside, either in plastic bags kept in a fridge or a root cellar, or in boxes of damp sand in a root cellar or garage. The other is to store them in the ground, right where they are growing. Let’s talk about each option and how it influences when to pick your carrots.
Harvesting carrots for indoor storage
Harvest carrots just as you would for fresh eating, except wait 3 or 4 days after watering your carrot patch, rather than digging them up the next day. If the roots are too wet when they go into storage, they could develop rot. Dig the roots, let them sit in a shady spot for only two or three hours, brush off as much of the dried soil as possible, and put them into storage. The goal is for the roots to have as much internal moisture as possible but not too much external moisture.
Storing carrots in the ground
Don’t harvest your carrots at all. At the end of every growing season, I leave two or three rows of carrots in the ground. I cover them with a 4- or 5- inch-thick layer of shredded leaves or straw held into place with a piece of pinned-down floating row cover or a plastic mini tunnel. They sit under there all winter long. When I want to harvest a few roots, I push aside the mulch, dig around in the soil, and pull up the roots. Delish! Carrots and many other root crops are reasonably cold-tolerant. The overwinter beautifully for me in my Pennsylvania garden.
More tips for harvesting carrots
- Carrots are biennials. That means they produce only green growth during their first year. If the roots are not harvested and left in the ground all winter, the following spring the plants develop flowers. As the flower stalk grows, the root shrivels, so you’ll want to harvest any overwintered carrots first thing in the spring.
- Carrots that are forked or gnarly were either grown in rocky soil or soil that was not prepared properly. They need deep, loose soil to form straight roots. Also, never transplant carrot seedlings as doing so always leads to forking.
- Use a long-handled shovel or a slender-bladed perennial transplanting shovel to harvest longer varieties of carrots. Using a trowel could lead to a broken-off root.
- Do not pull carrots to harvest them (unless you have the most perfect, loose soil on the planet!). Always dig them out. Otherwise, you’ll have lots of broken roots or green tops that break off the root entirely.
Knowing when to pick carrots isn’t difficult, but it is essential for harvesting a successful crop. Hopefully these tips have given you all the info you need to dig bunches and bunches of delicious, crunchy carrots.
For more on growing root crops, check out the following articles:
- Thinning carrots
- How to prevent forked carrots
- Growing carrots in pots
- Growing garlic
- Curing onions
- When to harvest potatoes