November 29, 1999
Parsnips are one of my favorite winter vegetables. They're reliably hardy, easy to grow, and taste great! Unlike some other winter crops, parsnips provide a lot of food in a small amount of space. Want to know more? Read on...
The single most important thing you can do to ensure success with this vegetable is prepare the soil! Before sowing, work the bed over with a spading fork as far down as you can, removing any rocks, clumps of soil, or chunks of organic material you find. Loose soil allows the roots to expand much more easily, and lessens the chances that the young taproot will break - which is what causes forked roots. Because of this, do not plant parsnips in soil that's been recently amended with organic matter, since chunks of organic material can also cause the plant's taproot to break. If your soil has a bit of clay in it, I highly recommend you use raised beds for parsnips (or any other root crop). It's much easier to maintain good tilth with raised beds.
Like many root crops, parsnips grow well in soils that aren't too fertile. Fertilizer is generally unnecessary except in very poor soil. Nitrogen can induce leaf development at the expense of root growth, and may also contribute to root hairiness. A good practice is to grow them in a bed that was well fertilized the year before - perhaps where you had the previous season's broccoli. The residual nutrients will probably be enough.
Parsnip seed can take a long time to germinate. To help keep it from drying out, I like to cover it with a fine potting soil or sifted compost. Although you can sow parsnips as late as July, I've found it simpler to start them in June - it's much easier to keep the seed damp before our summer weather gets going. Don't give up on the seeds! They sometimes take three weeks to germinate. About the time you decide they're not coming up, they will surprise you.
Parsnips are fairly problem-free. The leaves are somewhat unpalatable, so slugs and rabbits generally aren't attracted to the plant. Also, since the crowns are slightly below ground level, slugs aren't as likely to chew on them (as opposed to carrots or beets). Carrot rust fly maggots are attracted to parsnip. In my garden damage is minimal and easy to cut out after harvest. If rust flies are a bigger problem where you live, growing the plants under a floating row cover will prevent the adult fly from laying her eggs near the plant. Remember that a row cover cuts the light levels by about 10%, so you might want to either increase the spacing between the plants, or else allow some extra time for plant growth.
Parsnips are a natural for the winter vegetable garden. They get sweeter after they've been hit with a few frosts, since the plant responds to cold by storing more sugar in its root. In addition they're very hardy, and will usually survive our winters with minimal protection. When it gets really cold - say in the teens (Fahrenheit) - I like to keep them under several layers of floating row cover. They probably don't need the protection, but this keeps the ground from freezing and allows me to harvest them even when unprotected garden beds are quite frozen.
Try growing parsnips! Along with carrots, they're a great crop for the first-time winter gardener. I think if you grow them, you'll be hooked!
All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013