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