Parsnips are not typically found in home gardens, but they should be. Parsnips are root vegetables, related to carrots, but larger, and white in color. They are more cold hardy than carrots, and have a slightly stronger taste, and smell. I actually like parsnips better than carrots when cooked, as they are sweeter, and I prefer the smell of fresh parsnips to carrots.
Parsnip in the ground
Before the potato was understood to be edible, the parsnip was the major source of starch in Europe. Even though the potato reigns supreme today, the parsnip is nutritionally superior. Parsnips grew wild in Europe, and were considered a delicacy for the elite of Rome. Eventually, they were brought to America by the Europeans in the 1500’s.
Soil & Cultivation
As with all root vegetables, parsnips grow best in loose soil. I am not a fan of rototilling as it will destroy your soil life, but I will fork the area I am going to plant my parsnips. They also like some compost for fertilizer.
Early spring is a good time to plant parsnip seed. The seed is larger than carrot seed and should be planted at a ½ inch depth, ½ inch apart. It takes a long time for germination, so you have to be patient. Some of my parsnips seeds took over a month to germinate. After germination, thin your parsnips out to one every 3 or 4 inches.
Parsnips require a long growing season, and they mature in about 4 months. When harvesting, you cannot simply grab the leaves and pull a mature parsnip out of the ground. The root is usually too strong and the leaves are too weak, so you will simply pull out the leaves. It is best to dig around the parsnip with a shovel to loosen the soil, then you can pull it out. Be careful not to damage the root with your shovel.
Storage & cooking
Parsnips can be stored in the ground over the winter, and harvested as needed. However, you should apply a thick layer of mulch before the ground freezes. They actually become sweeter after a couple of frosts. If any parsnips are left come early spring, they must be harvested then. If you wait too long the core becomes stringy and hard. They can also be stored in a root cellar at 90-95% humidity at a temperature of 32-35 degrees. It is best to store them layered in damp saw dust, leaves, or sand. If you don’t have a root cellar, you can always blanch and freeze them.
Parsnips can be cooked the same as carrots in most instances. I like them baked or roasted with butter.
~ Phil Williams
Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com. He is also the author of numerous books, most recently, Fire the Landscaper and Farmer Phil's Permaculture. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.