Now that the winter’s first hard freezes have arrived, fresh homegrown produce is in short supply. The season my be over for frost-tender summer squash, vine-ripened tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, but with some preparation, you can enjoy at least one crop that can be harvested from mid-summer through fall and winter, until the days start to warm again. There’s nothing like going out to the garden in December, brushing off some snow, carefully digging into the cold soil, and pulling up some crisp, bright orange carrots!
Keeping carrots fresh and edible all winter isn’t hard. The trick is to keep them from freezing. In my own garden, here at 7,000 ft. along Colorado’s Front Range, it takes a two-foot thick layer of straw laid over the carrot bed. I top the straw with a moisture barrier such as a small tarp or large trash bag. This keeps it dry when warm days melt a recent snowfall. (You could also use autumn leaves, as my friend Joan is doing here; any form of light-weight insulation works well.)
I make sure the insulation covers my entire carrot patch with enough overhang to protect every precious root. Since I have raised beds, I try to harvest the carrots around the edges first, leaving the interior plants for winter eating. In past years, it has been the edges that freeze even when the rest of the bed does not. You can also insulate the outsides of the beds, perhaps by piling more straw or bags of leaves in the adjoining paths.
Gauging when to add the insulation is a bit trickier. I usually add it now—after cold weather stops growth, but before the ground freezes. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Once frozen and thawed, carrots quickly become rotting mush. If the soil is dry, water the carrots a few days before covering them.
The carrots will keep in good condition as long as they stay cold—just above freezing is ideal—and damp (not soggy). Remember that carrots are biennials. They have to be able to survive reasonably cold weather if they are to live long enough to bloom and produce seeds. (If you want to collect your own seeds, overwintering carrots is a necessity.)
Once the ground begins to warm, however, the roots start preparing for new spring growth. They use their stored sugars to put out root hairs, then fresh green sprouts. While you can pare off the hairs, flavor and texture deteriorate as well. So eat your carrots by the end of February. They’ll taste so good, the hard part will be keeping some around that long!
The only real problem I’ve had with storing my harvest in the garden is pocket gophers. They love carrots as much as we do. One year I went out, trowel and basket in hand, to collect a pile of carrots for dinner. But all that I unearthed were wilted tops—and a tunnel connecting all the missing roots. The pernicious gophers had eaten every single one!
Now, I make sure I’ve evicted every gopher before the frozen ground stops them from digging. I don’t mind being generous, but why can’t they eat the roots of my noxious weeds instead of my veggies?