This sweet root crop has made a significant return to fashion. It may be due to the realisation that, if the plants are grown in the home garden and roots pulled while they’re young and fresh, parsnips have a really sweet flavour.
Parsnips originated in the Mediterranean region and are related to the carrot. Although strongly resembling their close relative they are usually paler, with a sweeter flavour and richer in vitamins and minerals.
They will grow in almost any kind of soil, but dig well before sowing as deep, well-drained soils produce the best results.
Mix in some blood and bone, water, and when soil is evenly moistened, create a groove and sprinkle seeds along the row (soak seeds for 24 hours before sowing).
Seed should be sown directly into the soil, but can be difficult to germinate so always use fresh seed and sow fairly thickly.
Parsnip seedlings are very susceptible to aphids, so check regularly and apply a good organic insect spray. Thin when seedlings are 4–5 weeks old (these seedlings are delicious steamed with a little butter!) If you don’t thin, parsnips will become overcrowded and susceptible to disease and rot. Parsnips have a long growing season — they’re amongst the first crops to be sown in early spring and one of the last to be harvested.
Although plants take four or five months to reach maturity, it’s important they’re well settled in before the really cold weather. However, once plants are established, frost is said to sweeten the flavour of the roots.
Lift as soon as the roots are large enough or wait until foliage dies down. Parsnips keep well in the soil, so harvest can continue over a long period.
Carrot root fly is a major pest, and powdery mildew is the major disease but can be ignored if it occurs late in the season. Parsnip canker is a nasty fungal disease that carries over from crop to crop, and is often triggered by wet weather and poor drainage. You’ll need to burn all diseased plants and only grow parsnips in the same area every three years.
A number of varieties are available, but generally they all have long, tubular root systems. The main differences are in flavour and the size of the crown (the middle core bit of the parsnip). ‘Guernsey’ is a reliable and tasty French heirloom variety. ‘White Gem,’ a short-rooted, broad-shouldered type, and ‘Gladiator,’ an excellent all-round performer, are modern hybrids. ‘Hollow Crown’ is a traditional favourite, which has large, tapering roots and a creamy, tender, sweet flavour.