Parsnips have become one of my "must grow" vegetables over the past few years. A fall dinner just isn't complete without a side of roasted parsnips and carrots. Even though they need a fairly long season to mature, parsnips are well suited to northern gardens like mine because they are best harvested and eaten once they have had a few frosts to convert their starches into sugars and sweeten their flavor.
The parsnip is an upright plant with dark green, divided leaves. It develops a long, creamy yellow root that looks like a carrot.
Starting Parsnips from Seed
Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep and four inches apart, directly into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. The seeds tend to be slow to germinate, up to three weeks. You'll want to make sure you mark the area well so you don't forget planting them, and keep the soil moist to ensure good germination.
Parsnips grow best in full sun, but they also tolerate light shade. The soil should be of average fertility, moist and well-drained. For good, straight roots, dig the soil at least a foot deep, incorporating compost to lighten it and improve the texture; roots develop poorly in heavy soil. Mulch to suppress weed growth and to help retain soil moisture. While people tend to think that parsnips and carrots are very similar, the green tops that parsnips produce are much larger and thicker than those produced by carrots. Be sure to give them enough room to grow. The upside is that, once they're growing, these tops do a nice job of shading the soil, which inhibits weed growth and helps keep the soil moist.
A common complaint among those who grow parsnips are “hairy roots,” or roots that produce thin, stringy roots along the length of the parsnip. To avoid this, don't use manure as a fertilizer. The excess nitrogen in manure is what causes this growth. However, a bed that was amended with manure in a previous season should be fine for growing parsnips.
Parsnips are best harvested after a few frosts. They can be pulled up in fall, after the first few frosts, and stored like carrots in damp sand in a cold but frost-free location for several months. You can also overwinter parsnips by mulching them with straw and pulling them up in spring, before they sprout new growth. If you live in an area in which the soil doesn't freeze, parsnips can be pulled from the garden all winter long.
Parsnip Problems and Pests
There aren't many problems you'll encounter when growing parsnips. Other than the "hairy roots" mentioned above, the most common issues are canker and carrot rust flies.
Canker show itself as water-logged, rotted looking spots at the crown and along the root. These plants should be destroyed. To avoid the issue, don't plant parsnips in the area for three years.
Carrot rust flies lay eggs on the plants, and the eggs hatch. The recently hatched larvae feed on the roots, burrowing into them and causing rot and misshapen roots. Sometimes, delaying planting until later in the season can be enough to avoid the problem. Also, if they are a problem in your garden, consider sowing your parsnip seeds and immediately installing a floating row cover to keep the carrot rust flies from laying eggs on your plants.
Recommended Parsnip Varieties
There are several flavorful, tried-and-true parsnip varieties to try in your garden:
- 'Harris Model' is a delicious heirloom variety.
- ‘Javelin’ is a smooth-skinned parsnip, perfect for fall and winter harvests.
- ‘Excalibur’ is a later variety, ready to harvest in about 180 days.
- ‘Gladiator’ is generally considered to be one of the most reliable, best-tasting hybrid parsnips.
- 'Andover' produces sweet roots in about 120 days.
- 'Tender & True’ is an heirloom variety that produces long, canker-resistant roots.