Freshly dug parsnips

Freshly dug parsnips

By the middle of March, the only food I’m still eating from last year’s garden are onions, shallots and garlic. I feel pretty good about that until I think about the fact that some lucky gardeners out there are digging parsnips right around now.

I love parsnips (roasted or roasted and then pureed), but have never been able to produce more than a handful of misshapen little stumps. Considering the fact that the ideal soil for growing parsnips is deep, sandy loam, I guess it makes sense that I can’t grow them. The native soil in my garden is about 12″ of clay and stones on top of an impenetrable layer of hardpan.

Years ago I saw a Victory Garden TV segment in which Roger Swain demonstrated how he grew state fair-winning parsnips. His secret was to create a special growing chamber for each parsnip. After digging out a 20” deep by 6” wide hole, he backfilled it with a special mix of sandy soil. Then he planted a seed on top, right in the center of the hole. In typical Roger Swain style, he just happened to have a few parsnips lying around that he’d produced using this method and we could see with our own eyes that they were more than 16” long and as big around as your wrist. Wow.

If you’d like to try growing parsnips, remember that unlike most vegetable seeds, which remain viable for several years, you need to purchase fresh parsnip seed each year. Sow the seeds directly into the garden spacing them at least 4” apart in every direction. Germination is SLOW. It can take 20 days or more. The top several inches of soil need to stay consistently moist during this entire time. Cover the bed with a row cover if you aren’t confident the seeds will get watered (or rained on).

Parsnips take about 100 days to mature, so get yours planted early in the spring to ensure they finish growing before the days start getting short in the fall. You can harvest your parsnips in late fall and store them in a cool, moist location, as you would carrots (in a plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper or packed in moist sand inside a black trash bag in a cool basement or garage). Don’t start eating them until they’ve spent several months in cold storage, which is what turns their starches to sugars.

In cool climates, you can also leave your parsnips right in the ground over the winter. Just cover them in the fall with 6-12″ of straw to insulate them and retain moisture. Make sure you dig and eat your parsnips before the ground starts to warm up (which would be right now). Once the tops begin to sprout, the roots become soft and spongy. Yuk.

-Kathy LaLiberte, Director of Gardening