Fresh Carrots All Winter
What a treat, in a season when a lot of what we are eating has been frozen or canned, to bite into a sweet, cold, crunchy carrot. I juice, roast, and make soup stocks with them. Garden fresh carrots all winter long can be achieved under conditions many people already have in an ordinary garage, basement, or cold room and do not require a root cellar.
Planning for fresh carrot storage begins the previous summer. Though I could plant carrots all spring and summer long, I plant the bulk of my carrots in the spring during spring rains. I really watch the forecast before I plant them. Carrots and other members of the apiacea family are some of the most difficult vegetables to germinate. Consistent moisture from spring rains and clouds really helps this. As summer progresses, the surface soil where the carrots are planted dries out, and even with daily irrigation my germination success goes way down.
That being said if you can still manage to germinate them well winter storage carrots are ideally planted just before the summer solstice. That way, they are just maturing when you harvest them in October and have not become overgrown or woody. Alternatively, plant even your storage carrots in the late spring during rains and cloudy weather, but plant a variety that “holds well” in the field. Varieties, of carrots or otherwise, that hold well in the field are those that reach maturity and seemingly stop there for a time without becoming overripe or woody. A variety to carrots that I have found to do this is 'Scarlet Nantes.' I harvest from a spring planted row of these all summer and fall long. A few carrots might become too woody or overly large, but these are still okay in soup stocks.
Harvest carrots for winter storage when nighttime temperatures are getting to be about 28 degrees F. Carrots are somewhat hardy and allowing them to freeze lightly is beneficial for their flavor. Starches in the root are converted to sugars during freezing temperatures to protect cells from freezing and rupturing. Sugar becomes a solute in the cell water which lowers the freezing point of the water inside the cell. This process happens in parsnips and potatoes too, and is similarly beneficial for the flavor of parsnips. Potatoes will caramelize and turn brown. When cooked, these sugars will cause the potato to burn. I try to harvest storage carrots as late in the year as possible, so I'm closely watching for temperatures near 28 F. I store my carrots in a cold room and/or garage attached to the house that is not climate controlled. If I harvest the carrots when it is still warm in this room, they will either rot or sprout too early in their containers. Carrots that re-sprout turn woody as they start sending out fibrous roots.
Once the carrots are lifted is the time to sort them, saving the best to be planted for seed. I choose those with the most vibrant color and a good shape consistent to the variety. I don't save any for seed that are too big or too small. All those I save will be overwintered in the same manner as those for eating, but in a separate container. Gently tear or snip off most of the greens, but leave about ½ inch intact. This ensures that the growth point for the seed head remains unharmed, and that you don't create any unnecessary abrasions. Forked or broken carrots will rot, so eat these first.
I gently place the carrots in slightly moist soil inside coolers or storage containers with locking lids. I fill the whole container, covering each row of carrots with slightly moist soil. Soil straight from the garden will work, just make sure the soil is free from excessive organic matter like leaves, and mostly free of the creatures that break down organic matter like worms. The container full of soil keeps the carrots from drying out and keeps them in the dark. Like potatoes, they could begin to sprout when exposed to the light. It is important the container has a tight fitting lid for this. I use coolers that seal really well, but I have used storage containers with lids that simply snap on with good results.
I keep the coolers in a cold room next to our house that does not freeze. A garage attached to the house could work well too. Keep a thermometer in the cold room or garage to ensure temps don't go below 28. If they do, turn on a space heater in there or bring the carrots inside the house for the night. Also, watch the temperatures when you are out of town and send a friend over to rescue your carrots if it gets too cold! I have come home from winter trips to find food storage devastation due to unexpected low temps.
It's equally important the carrots don't get too warm. Just above freezing is ideal, and if you're having some warmer winter days you might want to bring the carrot containers outside, where it will be a little cooler. As mentioned above, when the carrots get too warm they will either rot or sprout.
Keep an eye throughout the winter on how your carrots are storing. This is easy if you are fetching carrots every few days for eating, but if you're storing them for seed you will still want to check on them every few weeks. If you notice them sprouting or molding, make adjustments to the storing conditions. If mold is developing in the container or its seems overly wet in there, crack the lid for a few days in a rodent proof area.
And enjoy cellar-less fresh food storage in your temperate climate!