Parsnips are a great divider of opinion, you either love them or you hate them, there is no in between. I happen to adore parsnips, they’re one of my favourite vegetables, especially when roasted with honey and fresh sage.
Parsnips are the vegetable that converted me from a vegetable hater to a vegetable grower so they’ll always have a special place in my heart. I know, that’s a pretty sweeping statement but it’s true. Home grown parsnips are the reason I decided to grow my own food. A number of years ago, my Dad brought home some parsnips from his allotment and I was hooked. They smell and taste nothing like the parsnips from a supermarket and they are my favourite thing to eat in winter, particularly on Christmas day.
I’ve only grown parsnips twice at the plot, mostly because there is a master parsnip grower in my family and I can’t even begin to compete with him and also as there are only so many parsnips that two people can eat (my mother falls firmly into the anti-parsnip brigade).
Parsnips are the diva of the vegetable garden in that they are stubborn but sweet and absolutely gorgeous. They take about as long to germinate as a good idea for your first novel. Parsnips also require a very long growing season and will take up space in your garden for the guts of a year.
However, parsnips are the crowning glory of the root vegetable family, rich in flavour and a lovely crop to harvest when there is little else growing in winter.
The first hurdle to get over when planting parsnips is to make sure you have good, fresh seeds. Parsnips are notoriously fussy and do not store well, you need to buy new seeds each year. If you try to use seeds that are two years old, you’ve already given yourself an impossible mountain to climb. Don’t set yourself up for failure.
When to plant
As I mentioned before, parsnips need a long growing season but this does not mean planting as early in the year as you like. I’ve seen people sow their parsnips in January and then wonder why they don’t do well. Parsnip seedlings really don’t like cold, wet soil. In fact, they need to be planted in soil that is about 10 degrees so hold off on sowing your seeds until your soil temperatures have risen in Spring.
The ARSE-nip test
There is a great way to test this if you don’t have a thermometer; I call it Fiona’s ARSE-nip test. Basically it is as follows: if your soil is warm enough for you to sit on in your bare arse then it’s warm enough for your parsnips. If you can indeed sit on your soil bare arsed without screaming bloody murder, it’s probably February/March and a good time to sow your seeds.
crack craic altogether.
Parsnips grow pretty deep so you’ll need well worked, fertile soil with good drainage, avoid using manure as this can cause your parsnips to fork. You’ll need to spend quite a bit of time working your soil to a fine tilth before sowing parsnip seeds.
Plant your parsnips on a day with little wind as parsnip seeds are minuscule and likely to blow away if a strong breeze hits. I once lost an entire packet of seeds in this manner and in the process, created some very interesting new swear word combinations.
Direct sow your seeds in rows about 30cm apart and thin them out once the seedlings have established. The more space you give each plant, the larger it will grown. Bear in mind that they can take up to three weeks to germinate so don’t panic if there’s no activity for a while.
Caring for Parsnips
As I said earlier, parsnips are divas to get started but once you do, they are pretty hardy plants. They require little care, except for some gentle hand weeding and perhaps some serenading. Take care not to damage the roots while weeding. Once parsnips have established, they have quite full, leafy foliage which is very similar to the foliage of celery. This creates a lot of ground cover so they need less weeding once they get larger.
Parsnips do need quite a bit of water and the soil they are in should not be permitted to get too dry. Water parsnips regularly and make sure there is plenty of organic matter in the soil to retain moisture.
Pests and diseases
Parsnips can be susceptible to a form of rot known as parsnip canker which appears as a rust coloured rot at the top of the plant and causes severe damage to the root of the plant, it’s mostly caused by drought and poor soil conditions.
Parsnips are ready for harvesting when the foliage begins to die back in autumn. However, they taste far better after they’ve been hit with the first frost of winter as the cold turns the starch in parsnip into sugars, giving them their distinctive sweet flavour. For this reason, it’s is ideal to actually store your parsnips in the ground until you are going to use them.
Recommended Varieties: Gladiator, Javelin, White Gem
Pro tip: if you are intending to perform the ARSE-nip test, you could use it as part of your New Year’s exercise regime. Remove underpants, (wellies optional), stand beside your intended planting site and perform twenty squats, touching your bum on the soil with each squat. For an added work out, hold a pot of compost in each hand. You might get some strange looks but you’ll have perfect parsnips and a gloriously toned bottom.