One of our most versatile and popular vegetables, parsnips are great whether boiled, roasted or mashed – and, best of all, growing parsnips is really easy!
Parsnips were gradually replaced by potatoes as our main dietary source of carbohydrates in the 16-1700s, and since then have rarely been used in their place. They now usually take their place as an ‘also ran’ vegetable on a dinner plate, alongside carrots and peas. However, don’t overlook them: they have a delicate, sweet flavour unlike anything else and as they’re amazingly filling, a little goes a long way.
Parsnips prefer a reasonably well-drained soil that’s slightly on the heavy side – so long as it’s not too cold or the seeds will rot before they germinate. Whatever your soil type, either wait until it’s around 7 degrees or (if you don’t have a soil thermometer) until near the end of March. Once they’re up, they’ll be fine.
Many gardeners recommend that as parsnip seeds are very slow to germinate it’s a good idea to sow lettuce at intervals along the rows so you know where you planted them. However, while this may well be true of commercially-produced seeds, those saved from your own vegetables will have a much higher and faster germination rate. There’s no need to sow lettuce amongst them, or to sow them as thickly as you otherwise might – or you’ll be spending the entire season thinning the crop.
However, either way parsnip seed has a fairly short storage life, and it’s not worth keeping it for more than a year or the germination rate falls.
Don’t add much in the way of fresh manure to the earth, as with all ‘taproot’ crops too much food seems to make them unsure of which way to go, and root division is usually the result. This may mean a weird and wonderfully-shaped crop at the end of the season rather than the graceful, tapered ‘snips you were hoping for.
Parsnips are among the earliest-sown crops in the garden, but need the longest growing season. Therefore they’re going to take up space right through spring, summer and autumn and well into the winter. Traditionally, frost is said to improve the flavour, but they seem to taste pretty good whenever they’re picked!
When the seedlings are up, thin them out to one every 12cms or so. As the roots will already be quite deep, it’s a good idea to hold the earth down around the plants as you pull them up to avoid disturbing the others. Alternatively, clip them off at ground level with scissors.
You can tell how big the roots are by gently pulling the earth back from the growing stem to reveal the top of the parsnip. Once they are big enough, use a fork to gently loosen the earth around them, beginning at the end of an outside row. A good-sized parsnip may be 25cms or more, and it’s a shame to damage them at this stage.
As heavy frost makes digging impossible, parsnips can be stored beforehand in the same way as carrots. Try to lift them without damage, as damaged crops won’t store. Twist off the leaves close to the crown and lay them in moist sand in a box, which should be stored in a cool, dark, dry and well-ventilated place. To store for longer, slice off the crown and dip the cut end into wood ash.
Carrot fly may be attracted to your crop by its scent, so when thinning, leave a crushed clove or two of garlic near to the bed. Wire worms drill small holes beneath the ground at the end of which will be a yellow maggot. These are less likely to be a problem in wet areas. Canker is a serious problem which disfigures the roots and makes them deteriorate in storage. Some varieties are resistant, and a good crop rotation plan will also help.
Got slugs? Leave a chunk of parsnip on the earth and check it by torchlight in the evening. If you’ve got slugs around, they’ll be all over it and can then be collected and relocated elsewhere, such as the compost heap where they’re actually useful. There’s no need to kill them – after all, they only want something to eat – just like us!