Per­fect parsnips

Charles of­fers ad­vice on how to grow a great crop of parsnips

Country Smallholding - - ORGANIC GROWING -

Be­fore the ar­rival of pota­toes, parsnips were king: they are well adapted to the Bri­tish cli­mate and, once you get over the hur­dle of ger­mi­na­tion, they are a re­li­able banker for win­ter food. In most soils they also keep bet­ter in the ground than other root veg­eta­bles.

Parsnips were ac­tu­ally used as a sweet­ener in parts of Europe be­fore the adop­tion of re­fined sugar; freez­ing weather trig­gers con­ver­sion of starches to sug­ars, which helps roots to be un­dam­aged by freez­ing con­di­tions. Car­rots and cele­riac also con­vert starch to sugar in low tem­per­a­tures while other veg­eta­bles ac­tu­ally pro­duce sug­ars when tem­per­a­ture drops - leeks, Brussels sprouts and kale taste sweeter af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing frost.

Va­ri­eties

For strong growth and high yield, try Gla­di­a­tor F1. For slightly sweeter flavour grow Ten­der and True, but it is more prone to canker, see be­low. White Gem has shorter, fat­ter roots of good flavour. I have tried many va­ri­eties and never been dis­ap­pointed.

Ger­mi­na­tion is key

Parsnip seed is fa­mous for ‘not com­ing up’. This may be from sow­ing in dry soil, or seedlings be­ing smoth­ered by faster grow­ing weeds, but of­ten it’s be­cause seed is too old. So it’s worth buy­ing fresh seed each year, ex­cept that seed pack­ets now only re­veal their ‘pack­eted date’, which is not the seeds’ age. So it’s a bit of a gam­ble.

Cop­ing with slow ger­mi­na­tion

You can speed ger­mi­na­tion and also check for seed vi­a­bil­ity by pre-sprout­ing seeds be­fore sow­ing, for ex­am­ple in a kitchen sprouter or a small pot: soak seed for 24 hours then drain and keep moist. If no white shoots are vis­i­ble af­ter about 10 days at the lat­est, the seed is no good. Once you see tiny roots, han­dle seeds gen­tly while sow­ing direct.

This method is es­pe­cially worth­while if you are sow­ing into soil with many weed seeds, be­cause there is oth­er­wise a risk of slow-ger­mi­nat­ing parsnips be­ing swamped by chickweed et al.

Weed com­pe­ti­tion

If you had many weeds go­ing to seed in pre­vi­ous years, there will be a strong flush of weed seedlings in early spring, likely to smother small seedlings like car­rots and slow ones like parsnips. So it’s worth sow­ing veg­eta­bles a lit­tle later, af­ter wait­ing for the first emer­gence of weeds, then hoe­ing them on a dry day so they all die. The main thing is to hoe them when tiny, so they die quickly when dis­turbed by

First parsnips in Novem­ber - Gla­di­a­tor

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