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There is no doubt in my mind, that carrots are one of my favorite vegetables to grow on the homestead. Somehow it always amazes me that such tasty orange spears can grow from those tiny round, paper-thin seeds.
Carrots pose a real challenge for the homesteader as they are so easy to get wrong. Homegrown carrots are frequently too small, too green, or bent and twisted. Occasionally, homegrown carrots can also be bitter rather than sweet.
In this article, I look at why we sometimes end up with carrots that lack the sweetness we all enjoy.
Carrots contain naturally occurring organic chemicals called terpenoids. Terpenoids give carrots a bitter taste, and whilst they develop naturally in all carrots, given time, the carrots’ own sugars out weight the terpenoids leading to the sweet vegetable we are all used to. Typically carrots taste bitter if they are harvested before the sugars have a chance to develop in the carrots.
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Why Are My Homegrown Carrots Bitter?
Carrots, like so many fruits and vegetables, contain a wide and complex number of naturally occurring chemicals. These chemicals give the fruit and vegetables their distinctive individual tastes.
Carrots develop the chemicals in a set order, and one particular chemical, terpenoid, develops early in the carrot’s growth. Terpenoid has a naturally bitter taste.
As the carrots continue to grow they start to develop naturally occurring sugars which balance out the bitter taste of the terpenoids and ultimately lead to a sweet-tasting carrot.
Some varieties of carrots have more sugars than others, giving us some of the very sweet varieties such as Sweet Candle, and others have more terpenoids giving us some of the less sweet varieties.
There are a number of different factors that will affect how sweet, or bitter an individual carrot is, and these include;
Harvesting carrots too early
In my experience, harvesting carrots too early is the main reason they taste bitter. As discussed above, carrots develop bitter-tasting terpenoids before they develop their sugars.
If we pick our carrots before the sugars have had a chance to develop, there is a good chance the carrots will have a bitter taste rather than a sweet one.
Knowing when to pick your carrots can be tricky as there is often no way to tell by just looking at them.
Neither the color of the carrot (if you can see it from above) nor the state of the green foliage will determine the readiness of the carrot for harvesting.
In my experience, the only way to know when to pull your carrots is to refer to the original seed packet. Most varieties of carrots are ready within 60 to 80 days of planting, but individual varieties do vary.
One top tip is to pull an individual carrot and eat it. That way you will be able to judge the sweetness before you go gang-buster and pull 40 or 50 carrots up, only to find they needed another couple of weeks.
Lack of water
A carrot is essentially perfectly designed by nature to send its tap root deep into the soil looking for moisture.
Most years, even when it is really hot above, there remains moisture in the ground just a few inches below the surface.
If however you are going your carrots in a drought area, or they are being grown in a tub or container, there is a chance they will not receive sufficient water to develop their natural sugars.
I have found the best way to grow carrots in containers is to give them a really good watering once a week. Giving them an entire can or two of water once a week is far better than just adding a small splash of water every day.
Growing temperatures that were too high
Carrots do not like growing in very hot areas. They are often described as cool-weather vegetables.
When temperatures are too high, carrots typically develop too many terpenoids and not enough sugars, leading to bitter-tasting carrots.
To avoid this, either ensure you grow your carrots when the season is cooler, planting them either at the very start of the growing season or towards the end of it.
Alternatively, you can cover your carrots with a thin layer of fleece, which will keep off the worst of the sun (as well as many pests) keeping the carrots cooler.
Improper growing conditions
Who would have thought carrots would suffer from stress? If we find ourselves growing carrots in less than optimal conditions, including if the carrots are being attacked by pests, or having to compete with weeds for light and moisture, they can become stressed.
When carrots are stressed, they develop phenolic acid. Much like terpenoids, phenolic acid creates a bitter taste in carrots.
Sometimes, no matter how much sugar the carrot produces, it can not produce enough to overcome the phenolic acid produced by a stressed carrot.
Ensuring your carrots are kept weed free, spaced out appropriately, and protected from pests whenever possible, reduces the chances your carrots will be stressed and therefore bitter.
In my opinion, the final reason carrots are bitter to the taste is that they are stored incorrectly after being pulled from the ground.
Once pulled from the ground, carrots should either be stored in string or mesh bags (so they do not sweat) or kept in boxes of slightly damp sand (often referred to as a clamp).
Occasionally people store their carrots in close proximity to other fruits and vegetables, some of which naturally give off ethylene gas.
Ethylene gas causes the carrots to continue to develop terpenoids, turning an otherwise sweet carrot into a bitter one.
Bannanas are one of the main culprits for giving off ethylene gas, which ironically can help some fruits, such as tomatoes, ripen off after picking.
In my opinion, carrots are one of the sweetest members of the vegetable family, making them ideal for children who are perhaps less enthusiastic about eating their veg.
They can however end up being bitter and almost inedible if we are not careful.
Taking a few basic steps when growing your carrots should reduce the chances they are bitter and allow everyone to enjoy the carrots you have grown.
If you found this article helpful, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ‘Why are my carrots so small?’