Some vegetables are notorious for their prolific, even rambunctious behaviour: sow, cover over, water... and stand well back! I’m thinking of the likes of, for example, pole beans, zucchini and potatoes. Other vegetables need a little encouragement or have the reputation as being something of a prima donna. While parsnips are certainly vigorous once they’re established, many kitchen gardeners find them nothing short of stubborn to get going. The reason, I suspect, is a combination of shoddy seeds, sowing too early and, dare I say it, a lack of patience. Rake aside this trio of barriers and your parsnips will germinate without a hitch.
Parsnips are without doubt the royalty of root veg, offering a real depth of taste (both metaphorically and literally). The roots sit through the winter, gradually improving in sweetness and flavor as the starch contained within is turned to sugars by cold weather and frost. Not many vegetables improve with the onslaught of inclement weather! Pick a late-to-mature variety and your roots will be one of those magical crops that fills the infamous ‘hungry gap’ of early spring, when the majority of winter stored veg have been used up but the new season’s pickings aren’t yet ready.
Secrets of Sowing Parsnips
Most vegetable seeds will happily keep for a couple of years, which is comforting to know when you only need a few short rows from each packet. Alas, parsnip seed isn’t one of them. The number one mantra with all parsnips is the fresher the seeds the better. Seeds will only germinate from material harvested the previous summer. This means fresh seeds have to be bought every spring to sow immediately; any leftover will not be viable the following spring. This is probably the main reason why so many fail, but one that’s so easy to get right.
Another hurdle is sowing at the wrong time. The majority of seed companies should be hauled into the dock for this one – far too many recommend sowing early in the season when the ground simply isn’t warm enough. It won’t work! Parsnip seeds need a minimum of 8°C (46°F) to germinate, but even at this temperature they are liable to rot before they’ve had a chance to sprout. If you can, wait until soil temperatures have reached a steady 10-12°C (50-54°F) when the time for the seedlings to push through is dramatically reduced. If you don’t have a soil thermometer, improvise – some gardeners suggest the ground should be warm enough to sit on with a bare bottom; you could also test with your elbow! So don’t rush into sowing as there’s nothing to be gained from a few weeks’ ‘head start’ and everything to be lost.
Patience is a Virtue
There’s no getting around the fact that parsnips take a long time to germinate. If your seedlings are up within two weeks you’re doing well, as you can normally expect to wait up to a month. It’s a little unnerving staring at a vacant patch of ground when everything else on the plot is up and away within days, but hold your nerve you must!
My sowing strategy for parsnips is to space the seeds 3-5cm (1-2in) apart within their seed drills, leaving 40cm (16in) between rows. The papery seeds are easy to handle individually, making this one of my most satisfying sowing tasks. Once the seeds are in, I then go along the same drills and over-sow with quick-growing radishes (or try finger-sized salad carrots). These are dropped sparingly between the parsnip seeds. They’ll be up within a few days, clearly marking the positions of the rows so that I can hoe off the weeds between them. The radishes are removed for eating at pretty much the same moment all the parsnips are finally through.
If you really are an impatient sort, or don’t trust the source of your parsnip seeds, there is another nifty trick the seed sower can pull. Try pressing the seeds onto saucers containing wads of wet kitchen tissue or cotton wool pads. Keep the seeds somewhere warm and little white roots will soon appear. You can then sow the pre-germinated seeds as above, discarding any that have failed.
Once all seedlings are up the guesswork is over. Now it’s simply a matter of thinning the seedlings in stages as they grow. Start by removing every other seedling when they have reached a few centimetres/an inch tall. Continue thinning every few weeks until each plant is 15-25cm (6-10in) apart. Some of the later thinnings will have started to form their distinctive taproots and can be served up as exquisite miniature veg. Allow the remaining plants to fill out, watering only during exceptionally dry conditions to encourage the roots to grow deeper in search of moisture.
The roots can be lifted as needed as soon as the leaves have died back – all the better if you can wait until the first frosts have tempered the roots. The roots can stay in the ground until they are needed, though in areas where the ground freezes solid in winter it will pay to lift the roots beforehand for storage under cover – unless you want to be outside with a pickaxe or jackhammer!
Eating all your parsnips up before new leaves sprout in spring shouldn’t be a problem – the roots are irresistible after all. My sweet-toothed tendency is to roast the roots with just a touch of honey to help the sweetness along. The result is a lip-smackingly sticky finish that makes the long wait worth it.
By Benedict Vanheems.