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Growing Parsnips

The Parsnip Growing Guide

Far more than just a white carrot, the king of or root vegetables has a distinct quality all of its own.

Slightly sweet, while deep and earthy, the parsnip makes a wonderful addition to broths, soups and Sunday dinners. Perhaps nothing is more moreish than a plate of them roasted to perfection and drenched in onion gravy.

Parsnips

Parsnips are native to Europe, and before the arrival of cane sugar were used as sweeteners when honey was scarce. They are high in fibre, potassium and folate. Eating them regularly promotes the nervous, digestive and skeletal systems, while lessening the risk of depression. You can also use them to make a creamy, spicy soup that eases coughs and colds.

Parsnip Soup

Of course, home-growing parsnips boosts their taste and health benefits immensely, but they do have a reputation for being difficult to cultivate. Thankfully, you’ll be pleased to know that it is undeserved. In fact they are very easy to grow once they have been set away, so read on as we show you how to grow powerful parsnips:

Varieties

There are many different varieties of parsnip, but they differ little in their harvest seasons and all take a long time to grow (usually 120 days on average). So we tend to select parsnip varieties based upon yield, root size and their ability to resist a fungal disease called canker.

Here are some good tried and tested parsnip types:

Albion

Albion is one of the best known and oft grown varieties in Britain. Yields are good and it produces decent sized roots. It has been bred for canker resistance and is a reliable germinator, so it is particularly good for gardeners who wish to remain organic.

Tender and true

Tender and true is fairly reliable with good resistance to canker. Its roots are not very large but they often appear perfectly formed and very straight. For this reason it is often favoured by competitive gardeners who like to show their products.

White gem

The white gem produces short, chunkier roots and is excellent for roasting. It is a high yield type which will thrive in all kinds of soil, and it is fairly resistant to canker, making white gem a great all-rounder.

Roast Parsnip with Beef

Panorama

Panorama is a very large variety producing long, straight roots that are fairly even from top to bottom. It has good disease resistance and excellent overall performance, so this heavy duty parsnip is sure to impress when you pull it from the ground.  

Countess

The roots of countess are rounded at the top, which makes them more closely resemble white carrots than other varieties. Countess has very delicate, sweet flesh that is truly delicious.

Planting

Parsnips do not transplant easily, so they are better planted in pots or straight into the earth. But most parsnip failures are caused by an inability to germinate, so some people like to try and ensure success by first sprinkling their seeds on a wet paper towel, and then allowing them to sprout roots on the windowsill for about a week before sprinkling the seeds as normal.

To further guard against failure, try using a new packet of parsnip seeds, because they do not keep well like many other seed types. Planting out at the right time is another big help. Seed packets will often tell you to plant in February, but the ground is usually too cold then except in the most southerly parts of Britain. So, it is much better to wait until April.

Parsnips do like some sun, but they will do fine in partial shade. Choose moist ground that has no stones in it, or the roots may end up forking.

Dig over your ground, remove all weeds and rake to a fine tithe. Dig in some well-rotted organic material a few weeks before you plant, but don’t use manure. Rake a wide drill in the ground and sprinkle your parsnip seeds along it. Be sure not to sow them when it is very windy, because the wind will easily lift the paper thin seeds and spread them across your garden. Cover over with a little more soil or simply rake in and water well.

If you want to make more than one drill then you will need to have them about a foot apart. If you have a lot of birds in the area then you may wish to cover your parsnip drills with chicken wire or some other kind of netting to keep them away. When the seedlings appear, you should thin them out so that you have one plant every 20cm (8”) or so.

Maintenance

Parsnips do not like to be drowned by water or weeds, so only water them when the ground is beginning to get very dry and keep your drills free of intruding plants, especially during the seedling phase.

Canker is the main problem that might ruin your crop. This black or orange rot is caused by a fungus that usually invades the crop through cracks in its skin. So you should be very careful not to bash your parsnips when you weed around them, or you may end up with a problem.  

You can further reduce the chances that canker will occur by planting resistant varieties and not growing parsnips in the same place for more than one year running. Unfortunately, if you do find canker on your crops there is very little you can do except to dig them out.  

Carrot-fly is another pest that can decimate your crop. If your parsnip foliage turns discoloured and wilted then you may have carrot-fly maggots chomping away on your precious bounty! There is little you can do once the flies have already begun to attack your crop. But there are many ways to prevent and confuse the little beasts, such as planting onions, sage or rosemary near your parsnips.

Harvesting Parsnips

Harvesting

Parsnips can be harvested at any point from early September until spring the following year, so if you wish you can allow them to winter underground. Many people insist that they taste much sweeter if they have been exposed to frost. But if you try to get them when the ground has become very hard, you will not be able to pull them out.  

When you are ready just wait until the foliage dies back and pull your parsnips up gently.

They are best stored by simply leaving them in the ground. But you should probably not leave them for an excessive amount of time because when they get extremely large their core turns bitter and woody. Out of the ground they can be stored in boxes full of sand in a cool dark place for a few months, whilst in the refrigerator they will keep for around two weeks.

Now you know all about planting parsnips you should get out there and get ready to build a crop that will last you all through the winter!

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