Growing perfect parsnips is all about preparation, precision and patience. Sue Linn learns some time-honoured tricks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
until your parsnips are about 10-15cm apart. Later, thinnings may be big enough to roast.
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.