Parsnips. The under-the-radar yet delicously tasty veg that we're all so fond of when we remember. Here's how to properly grow your own
We think the humble parsnip is possibly the most under-appreciated vegetable grown in British gardens and allotments. It’s an unfussy plant to nurture, steadily growing throughout the year with barely a whisper of complaint, and when its soil is shaken from the root it becomes a far more versatile kitchen ingredient than simply as an accompaniment to the Sunday roast.
A few years ago we grew a some parsnips in a tired old corner of the plot that even weeds thought twice about occupying. The parsnips’ roots bedded down fine and we largely forgot about them until Christmas when we dug up some roots so big they challenged the turkey for size. If you’re willing to give parsnips a chance to shine in your vegetable patch then here are a few tips on how best to grow—and eat—this tasty rooty veg.
Parsnips enjoy a long growing season and are one of the few seeds that can be sown before the spring sunlight twinkles through the trees. Although you can sow seeds until as late as June, we carry out this task in February, sowing them in rows directly where we want them to grow. To give them a helping hand against the remnants of winter we’ll warm the soil up for a few weeks prior to sowing, by simply covering the ground with bubble wrap (or you can buy special horticultural fleece if you’ve not recently received a bubble-wrapped gift). Once they’ve been sown, return the protective cover until spring properly breaks. Germination can be erratic so scatter more seeds than you need and thin out later. And don’t bother excitedly checking for germination every day—sometimes they take quite a while to come through.
Once parsnips get going they don’t much care for disturbances, so direct sowing is the favoured method. If you do want to give them a warmer head start by sowing indoors then use cardboard toilet roll tubes cut in half as pots—you can then put the whole lot out in position in spring, allowing the cardboard to simply decompose as the ‘snips grow.
When the leaves of your young plants are a few centimetres tall you can thin them out leaving the best specimens to carry on growing. They’ll appreciate their patch being regularly weeded and require watering during drier spells but will then get on with growing on their own. Carrot root fly can be a problem (although we find less so than with carrots) so try not to make the fly aware of their presence by releasing “parnsippy” aromas with clumsy weeding. Parsnip canker is another thing to look out for (rot at the top of the root) and is caused by prolonged periods without water, or over-rich soil.
Parsnips are ready to be dug up when the foliage starts to die down from late summer onwards, although they can be left in the ground for many more months. Waiting until after a frost will cause some of their starches to turn to sugar, creating a sweeter, tastier parsnip. These sugars tend to lie towards the surface of the roots so a good scrub, rather than peeling, will help maintain their sweetness through cooking.
Eating. And drinking!
Besides roasting your parsnips you can also use them to make soups, crisps, mash, vegetable bakes, cakes and more. We’re rather partial to a parsnip curry; their sweet flavours, stirred in cream and mixed with warm to spicy seasoning take on a coconut-esque flavour. And parsnip wine is one of the best country boozes you can make—often a potent affair, it can be fermented with spices to create a sherry-like drink with which to toast your gardening success.
Three parsnip varieties to try…
Tender and True
An old classic variety that produces good long roots and has a thin core
A fairly new variety that doesn’t burrow as deep as others, is less likely to pick up diseases and has a good germination rate
The parsnips we’ll be sowing this year, we’ll be expecting long roots and one of the tastiest varieties around