All vegetables are not created equal. As a gardener and vegetable grower, I encounter this truth constantly. A back-yard tomato grown in compost and ripened in the sun is a different thing altogether from the tomatoes you find in the supermarket in February. One is juicy and delicious, bursting with flavor and nutrition. The other tastes like wet cardboard.
This is true of every vegetable crop. A potato isn't just a potato, an onion isn’t just an onion and a head of lettuce is not just a head of lettuce.
The difference between generic, industrially-grown food and exceptional produce lies in how it was grown, what season it was grown in and whether the variety grown was selected for shelf life and durability or flavor and nutrition.
One crop that does an exceptionally good job at highlighting these differences is winter-harvested carrots. The difference between a freshly-harvested winter carrot and a store-purchased carrot is night and day. Winter-harvested carrots are incredibly sweet, mildly flavored and have a perfect crunchy texture for snacking on them raw. This flavor carries over when cooked. They are simply on another level and far superior to store-bought carrots.
Cold weather is the key element to growing extremely sweet carrots. Cool growing conditions in the fall keep the carrots from getting heat-stressed, which often results in a mild flavor, and cold weather later in the season is what makes them so sweet.
It is hypothesized that the carrots produce more sugars in response to cold temperatures to act as an antifreeze of sorts, to prevent the roots from outright freezing. This results in a carrot bursting with flavor, much better than anything you have ever purchased from the store.
How to grow sweet winter carrots
Timing is everything. The key to having a successful winter harvest of carrots is timing your planting correctly. As seasons change from summer to fall and winter, each day becomes shorter than the last.
As such, plant growth slows down starting in late September and more or less comes to a halt by mid-November. To ensure that your crop reaches maturity by this time, you should seed your carrots in the beginning of August.
The carrot varieties I choose to grow this time of year are Mokum and Bolero. Mokum is a slender carrot with a great crunchy texture and high sugar content. It is the best-tasting carrot I have ever grown.
Bolero is a blunt-tipped, medium-sized carrot with excellent flavor. Bolero grows great in the field and it stores extremely well after harvest, making it a great choice for this time of year if you choose to harvest your crop all at once.
Carrots should be grown in well-drained and fertile soil. To ensure long, straight and uniform roots, the soil should be loose down to a deep level. The native soils of Nantucket are generally sandy, which helps to grow nice carrots.
Give your carrots plenty of space to grow, seeding them in rows at least 10 inches apart. Water regularly to ensure good germination. This will give you enough space to weed between the carrot rows as needed. If necessary, thin your carrot seedlings within the row to an inch or so to ensure you get nice sized carrots.
If timed correctly, your carrots should become ready for harvest toward the end of October and the beginning of November. The good thing about this time of year is that because plant growth essentially stops from colder temperatures and shorter day lengths, your carrots can be stored in the field and will maintain good quality.
In fact, to get the desired sweetness of the winter carrot, you should leave them in the ground for at least one frost. These cold nights with temperatures below freezing will prompt the carrots to produce more sugars and become deliciously sweet.
The island’s mild fall and winter temperatures, mean I normally harvest the bulk of my winter carrots around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Once temperatures threaten to dip into the lower 20’s, you should either harvest your carrots or give them some thermal protection. One method that many people have success with is to leave your carrots in the ground, cover their tops with a thick layer of straw and one layer of thermal row cover.
This added protection will enable you to keep your carrots in the soil throughout the winter and you can harvest them as needed. These carrots will continue to sweeten until March when increasing day lengths will prompt the carrots to grow new leaves and eventually flower. They should be harvested before this happens.
If you’re reading this near the time of publication, it is November and far too late to start a winter carrot crop. Gardeners know, however, that looking ahead to the next growing season, making plans that go well into the cold weather is part of the draw of growing your own vegetables.