I believe allotment growers hold parsnips in much higher regard than the general population. Indeed, I remember sowing my first parsnip seeds at the allotment and thinking whether it was worth the effort, crouching down in cold and wet spring weather, fumbling to separate the seeds between my numb fingers.
A few years later I am totally converted. Our Sunday roast dinners simply would not be the same without our roast parsnips, and they also make delicious soups.
- February – May
- Planting depth: 1 cm
- Planting spacing: 15 cm between plants, 30 cm between rows
- October – March
- Eat fresh, leave on the plot and dig up as needed (mark the rows)
Parsnips are related to carrots – in Spanish the literal translation is ‘white carrots’. The big difference is that growing parsnips is much easier. My experience is that carrots are too frequently ravaged by carrot fly.
At my allotment parsnips are gloriously free of this affliction, growing fat, long, and strong – making an ideal crop to grow in the summer for winter consumption.
Parsnips prefer a light sandy soil. If you don’t have this, at least make sure you dig deep in spring to break up the soil before sowing time.
The only really tricky part of growing parsnips is the very first stage of securing germination. If you plant too early, parsnip seeds can rot in cold soil and never come through. Planting too late risks the soil being too warm and dry.
Parsnips also like to keep you waiting – sometimes up to three weeks before the seedlings break the soil. Two tricks to maximise chances of success: always use fresh seed; and sow when the weather has turned wet and warm following winter.
A good parsnip bed is weed free and dug deeply. I like to mark the rows with canes and string. This is particularly helpful for parsnips as their long germination time makes it easy to forget where the row is, especially if the weather turns dry and watering is required.
Some people recommend planting three seeds together every fifteen centimetres. I have found this works well, but I’ve also tried simply scattering the seed along the rows – and this seems to work well too.
A traditional method is to plant radish seed in the same row and at the same time. Growing radishes this way seems to help provide some protection for the parsnip seedlings, and helps delineate the row. The radishes are ready to eat well before they interfere with the health of the parsnips. Ideal spacing for the rows is about 45 centimetres apart.
Parsnip seedlings have quite unusually shaped leaves. This is helpful as a parsnip bed will always need plenty of weeding – weeds will nearly always germinate faster than parsnip seeds.
Fully grown parsnips stand tall at the allotment at around sixty centimetres high. I never eat them at this stage. The flavour of parsnips is greatly improved by a hard frost as this helps turn some of their starch into sugar and greatly improves their flavour.
Winter also kills the leaves of parsnips. Whilst it can be quite a humorous site watching allotment holders in winter digging randomly around their plot looking to find their parsnips, I know from experience this can be frustrating!
My recommendation is to make sure you mark the beginning and end of your parsnip rows for winter. The best way of storing parsnips over winter is to simply leave them in the ground. Parsnips are at their best freshly dug – the colder they get the sweeter they become.
There is often not a large choice of parsnip varieties to be found in the shops. Some parsnips are longer than others. Long parsnips will perform well on sandy soils. If your soil is heavy, shorter parsnips may be a better choice.
Parsnips can be affected by carrot fly and canker. You may want to choose varieties that claim resistance to these problems.