Have you ever considered growing parsnips (Pastinaca sativa)? Okay, are you even sure what parsnips are? If you’re one of the uninitiated, consider this Parsnips 101.
What Are Parsnips?
Not sure what a parsnip is? Don’t feel bad, a lot of people don’t (although they probably won’t admit it)! Parsnips are those creamy, blanched-looking cousins of carrots that you often see dawdling near the turnips and beets at the farmers market. Long, thin and pale, parsnips have the shape and versatility of carrots, but their texture and flavor are quite, quite different. In fact, parsnips and carrots taste nothing alike (at least not to me), although both could easily be described as “sweet.”
So, what do parsnips taste like? To me, the words “sweet earth” come to mind. Parsnips are sweet, but there’s a mild, almost earthy, quality to their flavor (what else would you expect from a root vegetable?) that’s reminiscent of spiced turnips. For me, it’s mild molasses meets a hint of cardamom, and it’s just different. In any event, their willingness to grow in cold weather makes them a wonderful addition to any winter garden, and their unique flavor and cold-hardy nature make them a favorite for winter stews, soups and roasts.
How to Grow Parsnips
Growing parsnips is similar to growing carrots, although there are a few extra twists. For instance:
- Parsnip seeds take a little longer than carrot seeds to germinate. When growing parsnips, don’t bother trying to start your seeds indoors, soak your seeds in water for a day before planting (to improve germination rates), and expect your parsnips seeds to take anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks to germinate. You can also improve germination rates by keeping soil moist and maintaining humidity.
- Just like you would with carrots, make sure you plant parsnips in loose, deep, “clean” soil (no rocks, pebbles or clumps of clay). Poor soil conditions can cause all sorts of problems when growing carrots and parsnips.
- Plant in full sun and sow seeds about 1/2″ deep. Since parsnip seeds have low germination rates, you may want to sow heavily and then thin seeds back (like you would with carrots). Just be sure that after thinning there’s a good 3″ of space between parsnip seedlings.
- WARNING! Be sure to wear protective gloves with sleeves when handling parsnip leaves. The shoots and leaves contain a photosensitive chemical that can cause rather severe allergic-like reactions. Blistering, rash, and burning sensations are not uncommon.
Like with many other cold-hardy winter vegetables, knowing when to harvest parsnips can be just as important as knowing how to grow parsnips. Here are a few tips to help you get the most from your parsnips crop:
- Beginning harvest parsnips after the first frost, since cold makes the roots sweeter.
- In mild-winter climates, be careful not to let your parsnips over mature. In mild weather, mature roots will continue to grow, becoming tough, woody and tasteless as the plant goes to seed.
- To deter common garden insects like armyworms, cabbage root maggots and flea beetles, use row covers and cloches.
That’s about it. Tend to your growing parsnips just as you would carrots and you should have a tasty, hardy crop to contend with. For in-depth growing specifications for growing parsnips (like preferred soil pH, nutritional requirements and ideal soil temperatures), check out the Gardening Guides page.