per­fect parsnips

Grow­ing per­fect parsnips is all about prepa­ra­tion, pre­ci­sion and pa­tience. Sue Linn learns some time-hon­oured tricks.

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his will be my year of up­hold­ing a fam­ily tra­di­tion and grow­ing a re­spectable crop of parsnips. I learned to love their sweet nutty taste as a child, thanks to the pro­fi­cient vege gar­den­ers in my life. Here’s how my grand­fa­ther grew his parsnips, as passed on to me by my fa­ther.

First

get your row sorted. Once the soil has dried enough so that it doesn’t stick to the spade, care­fully pre­pare your parsnip bed: you need about a spade’s depth of loose crumbly soil with­out hard clods or stones. It must be well drained, but a heav­ier soil with rea­son­able clay con­tent is good as clay par­ti­cles hold mois­ture.

Don’t add fer­tiliser or compost at this stage. High ni­tro­gen lev­els cause forked roots. Ide­ally sow your parsnips in soil that was used for a well fed crop (such as beans or salad greens) the year be­fore.

Wait

un­til the soil has warmed to at least 10ºC. In colder cli­mates with short sum­mers it’s best to sow parsnip seed a week or two af­ter the last frost has passed to al­low plenty of grow­ing time be­fore au­tumn frosts. In warmer cli­mates wait­ing till late spring or early sum­mer may give a bet­ter chance of colder tem­per­a­tures as the roots ma­ture, and there­fore sweeter parsnips. Rake out a shal­low trench (1-2cm deep) and use a plank of wood (about 15cm wide) to make a smooth even sur­face.

Sow

your seed, which must be fresh. Grandpa sowed his quite thickly (about 1cm apart) to com­pen­sate for er­ratic ger­mi­na­tion (some gar­den­ers rec­om­mend pre-sprout­ing on damp pa­per tow­els). Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil then place the board on top and walk over it to make sure the seeds are sit­ting snug­gly in the soil. If there is too much air around the seeds they can dry out.

Watch and weed.

It is im­por­tant to keep the row free of weeds un­til the parsnip leaves are big enough to shade out the weeds.

Start thin­ning

when the seedlings have their first two true leaves. The tap roots grow strongly dur­ing these early weeks and you need to give them room to grow. At first, thin them to about 3cm apart. Thin again when the leaves are touch­ing.

Keep thin­ning

un­til your parsnips are about 10-15cm apart. Later, thin­nings may be big enough to roast.

Wa­ter

as of­ten as needed to keep the soil con­stantly moist. To cut down on wa­ter­ing (and weed­ing) mulch with straw or lawn clip­pings mixed with chopped up leaves.

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