Easier to grow than you might think, parsnips will reward the patient grower with months of sweet, tender roots in the depths of winter
It’s easy to understand why this crop is back in fashion. Recent decades saw the parsnip’s popularity decline thanks to a long growing period and a variable germination rate. However, it’s still well worth making room for this tasty veg. Catch crops of fast-growing lettuce, radish or baby turnips may be grown in between the establishing plants and, with a bit of know-how, it’s easy to achieve consistently high germination rates. The roots can be lifted when young and tender. The sweetest of any root vegetable, they occupy the ground throughout the winter season for harvesting as needed.
Parsnips are the royalty of root vegetables – roasted with a little honey or chopped into a bubbling stew they are the original winter warmers.
These vegetables were the mainstay of most European dinner tables before the advent of the potato. Thankfully, with a whole raft of modern F1 hybrids to try, parsnips are making something of a comeback – and it’s about time too! Many of these boast smooth, white roots. They also have impressive resistance to canker, a disease which often hampered past efforts.
Today there are both shorter and longer rooted types, suitable for all soil conditions. Those who want to grow for exhibition can sow tapering varieties that are successful in good, deeply cultivated ground.
The earliest sowings can be made under cloches from the end of February, but more reliable results will be had by waiting until mid-March or April.
Mark out your rows by stretching a taut string between two canes and drawing a hoe along the line to create straight drills. Make them about 1cm deep and, if you are sowing more than one row, space each one 30cm apart. Do this on a still day as the papery seeds are easily blown away by sudden gusts of wind.
Place one seed every 2cm along the drill. Alternatively, position three every 15cm – a process known as ‘station sowing’. If the weather is dry, irrigate the rows using a rose-fitted watering can before you start to sow. Cover the drills back over with sieved soil and water for a second time. Mark the ends of each row so you know exactly where the seedlings will appear. This will make it easier to weed around the crop.
You will only need to make one sowing but if space on your plot is at a premium, cultivate radishes or another quick-grower such as cut-and-come-again salad leaves between the rows of parsnips to make maximum use of the ground. These will be long gone before the slow-maturing plants need the extra room.
Parsnips don’t germinate in a hurry, so patience is a virtue here. Expect the first shoots to push through in about two weeks and the final seedlings to make an appearance after another two.
Keep the seedbeds as weed free as possible – remove unwanted plants by hand to avoid disturbing the soil along the rows. Once the seedlings are about 2cm tall you can start thinning the plants to their final spacings. If you have station sown your seeds then take out all but the strongest seedling at each position. Alternatively, if one was sown every 2cm, remove excess plants to leave a seedling every 7cm then, once they have grown on a little, every 15cm or so. Do not be tempted to re-plant your thinnings as they will be unlikely to grow properly.
Early parsnips started off under cloches can have their coverings removed once they have grown a couple of adult leaves. Watering during the early stages encourages even germination and successful establishment of young seedlings. Once they are growing they are a very easy crop to look after.
Keep the young parsnips consistently moist and avoid the roots drying out at all costs or you may attract canker.
You can apply a mulch of grass clippings or similar between the crop to keep the moisture locked in. At all stages keep rows weed free. It’s safest to pull unwanted plants by hand, though light hoeing is also possible as long as you take care not to clip the parsnips’ roots. Damage that creates a wound will leave them vulnerable to canker entry. Any catch crops should be removed as soon as the leaves begin to close over. This will give them enough space as they grow on to maturity.
Although some parsnips can be lifted as early as late summer it is best to harvest after the foliage begins to die down at the beginning of November.
Wait for a few frosts before you begin lifting the roots. This causes the starch to convert to sugar, dramatically improving their flavour. Only lift what you need at any one time, leaving the remainder in the ground.
To unearth a root, insert a fork or spade some distance from the parsnip and rock it back and forth to loosen the soil. They have a firm grip, so you may find you have to literally dig them out to a depth of up to 45cm. Once the first parsnip is out of the ground it is easier to work your way along the row to extract the others.
In very cold parts of the country it’s prudent to lift a few roots early on in the winter and store them under cover in case the ground becomes frozen solid. Trim the tops off the lifted roots then wash and dry them before packing them into wooden boxes of dry sand. Keep these in a cool, dark and wellventilated place such as a garage or shed and eat within a few months.
Order in your parsnip seeds if you haven't already. Pick one of the reliable F1 hybrids or a canker-resistant variety such as 'Avonresister'.
Check the pH of your soil and add lime if necessary to bring the pH up to 6.5. Place cloches over the soil for an early crop of young and tender roots.
If your soil has reached at least 7°C, begin sowing towards the end of the month. Gardeners with cold soils should wait a few more weeks to be on the safe side.
Continue weeding and watering. Lift out any catch crops to give the parsnips enough room to expand.
Continue weeding and watering. Lift out any catch crops to give the parsnips enough room to expand.
The final growing spurt of parsnips. Little attention will be needed as the thick foliage will have covered over any previously open patch of ground.
On the whole, these tasty roots are largely trouble free. The main nuisance you might encounter is parsnip canker, a relatively common disease. Symptoms take the form of lesions and scars, leading to a browning, blackening and cracking of the roots’ tops. Canker can be caused by one of several factors, but precautions can be taken to stop these.
If your soil is very acidic then it may be necessary to apply a little lime to bring it up to a pH of at least 6.5. Never sow parsnip seeds into recently manured ground as the roots may fork if grown in soil with fresh organic matter in it. Once your plants are maturing avoid damaging them at all costs – wounds act as an easy access point for the disease. Always water during dry spells so the roots don’t dry out and practice meticulous crop rotation – never grow parsnips on the same patch of ground two years in a row.
Modern F1 hybrids have done wonders in improving general resistance to canker and many varieties, such as ‘Albion’ and ‘Gladiator’ put up a very good fight against the disease. The one variety that stands out, however, is ‘Avonresister’, which was bred specifically for gardeners in the Bristol area where canker has traditionally been a real problem.
Related Forum Topics
Parsnips: Varieties To Try
Tender and True
This is still the most popular variety, producing different-sized roots with little core and good disease resistance. Pick this if you’re on a budget, as the seed is cheap to buy.
A very hardy parsnip which can stay in the ground right through until April. The roots are smooth and white and have a truly delicious flavour.
The first F1 hybrid, with exceptional vigour and good resistance to canker. The white, smooth roots are early to mature and great for exhibiting.
An older variety that produces medium-sized, thick tapering roots. The creamy flesh has perhaps one of the best flavours of all varieties.
The best for canker resistance, forming shorter roots which may be grown as close as 7cm apart. A great choice for poor quality soils.
These long, gently tapering smooth roots have a simply delicious texture and flavour. ‘Albion’ has a great resistance to canker too.
As the name suggests, this is real gem of a parsnip, producing smooth, white-skinned, wedge-shaped roots with some canker resistance.
Grow this variety to enjoy healthy yields of large, canker-resistant parsnips. The plants are vigorous and less prone to fanging.
If you haven’t got a big plot you’ll love ‘Lancer’. It can be sown at much closer spacings than usual to yield tender, uniform mini roots for early lifting.
A new, smooth-skinned variety producing cream-coloured roots with a sweet taste and tender flavour. It also stores well for use in late winter dishes and has good resistance to canker.
Parsnips aren’t the fastest growing crop, but a few handy tips will see you achieving success every time. To start with, it’s important to realise that seedlings take up to 30 days to appear, so don’t expect to see them any time soon! Unfortunately this length of time in the ground makes the seed liable to rotting, being dug up by cats, or simply being swamped by quicker-growing weeds. Here’s how to overcome these obstacles. Begin each season with a fresh packet, as parsnips are one of the few crops whose seed does not keep from one year to the next.
Don’t sow too early either because cold soil will only cause rotting. Parsnips need a consistent soil temperature of at least 7°C and preferably more. Gardeners are often advised to sow in February but the soil will be far too cold, so wait until the end of March or April before getting the seed in the ground – use a soil thermometer if unsure. There’s no need to hurry anyhow, as you won’t be lifting your roots until autumn.
Draw drills into your well-prepared seedbed and thoroughly water along the drill before sowing. After positioning your seed, cover the drill back over and give the rows another drenching. By doing this you’ll make sure that the area is moist and that the slow germination process can begin. To keep off unwanted excavators, such as cats, cover the area with netting or mesh. Check over the area regularly and keep it well watered.