Okay, so my friend grew up in Mississippi and says "I've never seen uglier carrots than you grew last year!" I said, "you're just used to 'perfect' supermarket carrots and not much in a home garden can mimic the perfect (says who?) shape of supermarket produce. I didn't like how defensive I sounded... but she was right. The carrots in my hand were not pretty. Tasty, but not pretty. They had large splits that ran from top to bottom and the tops were bright green and strongly flavored.
I don't talk a lot about varieties, I grab seeds from the Farm Supply store, read about them seed catalogues, and work very often with trial and error. That is the sum total of how I write, how my garden works. You can read and read, but nothing in the world prepares a person to grow their own food like hands on growing. Like Nike said, "Just do it!" It is the only way.
However, rather than get off on a discourse about the neccessity of organic gardening for food, I will simply say about carrots... The most important consideration in growing carrots is the limberness of your soil (clay or loamy?) They don't grow well in rocky soil. Some consider carrots "fussy growers" because they grow best in light, stone free soils with plenty of well rotted organic matter in them. If there is not plenty of potassium, they won't be as sweet; too much nitrogen and they get hairy.
Soil temperatures can play a big role as well. At temperatures below 41°F (5°C)carrots will labor to sprout. If the temperature is too high, carrots can take up to 35 days (and more). It may seem picky, but if you waith until soil temperatures increase to 50°F (10°C) you will find them poking through the soil in 10 days or so. I've posted a handy chart I found at Gardener's Supply here... Ideal Temperatures for Seed Germination
But before you get too concerned, know that carrots are grow all over the world and develop normally within a great range of temperatures and are grown throughout the world, well maybe not in the Sahara... Root growth is fastest at a temperature between 60°F and 65°F (15°C-18°C), while ideal temperatures for green growth are somewhat higher. Seeds of carrot may germinate at low temperatures but the germination period is shorter at higher temperatures and a soil temperature of at least 50°F (10°C) is therefore recommended. Carrots take long days quite well, but they do need lower temperatures to coax flowering.
You've probably read many things about planting carrots and so long as you are not growing acres of them, they are not that terrible to plant. The seeds are very small, the "head of a pin" size. And if you've ever read about planting radish seed with carrot seed, I can attest to the fact that this is helpful practice. Given that even in optimal temperatures, depending on the age of the seed you plant, etc, the fact is, carrots are slow to germinate in comparison to say, a green bean seed that pokes up in just a couple of days. So too, radish seeds come up quickly and "mark the spot" where you will be seeing carrot sprouts eventually. Just be careful when you pull up your radishes that you don't disrupt your carrot seedlings too badly.
When starting carrot seeds, best practice is to "direct seed", that is, plant the seeds directly in the garden as opposed to "seed starting" indoors or in the greenhouse in small pots. The reason is that carrots do not transplant well. Yes, I've tried it, but the small root hairs are so easily displaced that the time you set yourself back from transplant shock doesn't buy you any growing time at all. I highly recommend direct seeding for carrots.
I have also read (and tried) mixing carrot seed with sand to "lay them out" better in your bed. I didn't find this helpful, the seed still bunched together, the sand didn't help the seed disbursement... it may have helped loosen the soil a tad, but I can find and easier way to do that!
One helpful tip I did find quite useful and always practice when planting carrots involves what to cover your carrot seed with after placing the seeds on the soil. If you use the soil itself, as it dries, it forms a find crust that tiny carrot seedlings can have a bit of trouble pushing past and they are foiled before they see the light of day. If you cover them with a fine bit of sawdust, leaf mold, or peat moss (although peat moss is the least sustainable choice) it makes it easier to water without displacing the small carrot seeds and it keeps an easy covering for the seedlings to grow through. It also helps keep the birds out of them and the wind from blowing them away. And yes, that happens. I've tried just leaving them in a small furrow only to find carrots actually growing many feet away!
In order to keep plenty of carrots in a root cellar only plant as many as you can eat for three weeks. Keep a good garden journal of when you plant (and if your garden is large and you stick carrots everywhere like I do) where! And then plant the same amount every three weeks for your entire growing season up until 2-3 weeks until your expected last frost. The fall carrots are the most spectacular (in my opinion) because when the carrots stay in the ground until after a good hard frost, the carrot root turns many of the starches into sugars (deeply complex biology ;) and they are particulary sweet.
I will tell you this... the "ugly carrots" that my friend so lovingly commented on at the first of this articles were NOT that great. But they were in the ground for over a year. Planted in early spring and left there till spring. The carrots I mentioned above were planted a few weeks before the last frost and harvested (and eaten) in November; small and delicious. Yuummmm!
One thing that all gardeners speak so highly of, animal manure, is not something to feed carrots. While you may have a clay soil, add humus, leaf mold, compost... but straight manure will cause your carrot roots to do some weird things, forked roots (rocks can also cause this) and twisted. If you have that problem, look to your soil (as with all things organic, LOL!) But in the case of carrots, a rich diet only results in deformed carrots.
Wood ashes from your fire provide very necessary potassium for healthy carrots.
Water is a critical component of carrot success as well.
Carrot Companions: Chives, Rosemary, Sage, Radishes, Lettuce, Peas, Onions, Leeks, Tomatoes
Incompatible Plants with Beets: Dill