The parsnip is an overlooked vegetable. I think this is in part because cookbooks often lump them in with turnips and rutabagas, even though they have nothing in common. Also, the ones in the grocery store are often old and slimy on the top. Mostly, they are just less a part of the culinary landscape than potatoes and carrots and beets. This is a shame, since parsnips are a delicious and versatile vegetable, and it is doubly so for the avid gardener or homesteader.
They have a number of qualities that recommend them as a staple crop. They are, as mentioned, delicious and versatile, lending themselves to roasting, sauteing, mashing, or pretty much anything you might do with a potato. In my opinion they are more palatable than beets or rutabagas or even carrots. Once established they are vigorous, hearty plants with few disease issues. They store beautifully in the cellar or in the ground. Though they are biennial, they are easy to overwinter in sound enough condition to save seed.
So why aren’t they more widely grown? Other than ignorance about how awesome they are, the greatest difficulty is germination. Trying to get a good, even bed of parsnips can frustrate even the most experienced and dedicated gardener. It seems like no matter how heavily they are seeded or how diligently they are watered, there is always half a row where few or none germinate. But the rewards come harvest make them worth growing.
Parsnips are less prone to getting fibrous than carrots, so the main storage crop can be planted in the spring. Unfortunately, they do not reach peak flavor until they’ve been through some frosts, so they aren’t the best root to eat during the summer.
They will give some sort of crop even in soil that isn’t particularly fertile, but they’ll do much better in a mineralized, well prepared bed. Though they don’t feed as heavily as cabbages, like all garden veggies they do appreciate nitrogen, whether from seed meal, high quality compost, or a green manure. A lighter soil with relatively fewer stones will increase the number of perfectly shaped roots, but this is primarily an aesthetic concern.
Fresh, vigorous seed is even more important with parsnips than with other vegetables. Though I routinely order a large quantity of kale or beet seed, which I use over several years, parsnip seed does not hold its quality, even when stored in a refrigerator with desiccant. Luckily, it’s reasonably cheap, so buy plenty, and buy new stuff each season. Better yet, save a couple dozen choice roots and produce your own seed.
I’ve never managed perfect germination, but the best results have used a straightforward approach. I make shallow rows eighteen inches apart with the edge of my weeding hoe, into which I sow the seed, putting down a lot more than my intended final spacing of one plant every four inches. I cover this with fine compost, potting mix, or some other light, water-retaining soil, and then I water these rows every day. After they have germinated and started growing any extras can be thinned out.
Once established, parsnips are very easily maintained; simply mulch or hoe to keep down weeds, water, and watch them grow. They are theoretically susceptible to some pests and diseases, but only the carrot rust fly has ever been a problem for me, and even they seem to prefer carrots. Floating row covers would limit them, but in my experience they do so little damage to parsnips it’s hardly worth the bother.
It’s best to wait until after a couple frosts to dig parsnips, since this helps them start sweetening up, and their flavor will continue to improve for months. They can be a little tricky to harvest, particularly if they are planted in dense soil. It’s tempting to reach down and tug them out by their tops, but they are too brittle for this to be effective. Taking the time to first loosen the soil around them with a shovel makes it possible to get them out intact, which is critical if they are going into long term storage.
Another potential issue with harvesting parsnips is their potential to irritate bare skin. When the sap from the vegetative portion of a parsnip gets onto skin, and when it is then exposed to direct sunlight, it becomes a nasty irritant. The fancy word for this is phytophotodermatitis. The less fancy explanation is that it makes your skin get covered in gross boils that take forever to really disappear. I’ve never had a problem in the garden, but I did experience it when I mowed a patch of wild parsnips without taking the proper precautions, like wearing a long sleeved shirt.
Parsnips are among the best keeping vegetables. In a root cellar kept reasonably cold and humid they’ll easily last well into spring. They can even overwinter in the garden - our yearly low is around -20, and they still were fine in the spring - though mice and voles may gnaw on the tops, and it makes it impossible to get them until the ground has thawed.
The easiest way to prepare parsnips is to dice them and roast them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until they are tender. Putting a piece of foil over the baking dish will speed up the process, but it isn’t necessary. After being roasted or steamed they can be mashed. They can be grated and made into fritters or hash browns.
Parsnips have a caloric density and palatability similar to that of potatoes. They are less prone to diseases and pests than almost any other root vegetable. They are so hardy and compact that saving seed from them is not an onerous proposition, and purchased seed is cheap. In other words, they should make up a significant portion of any serious gardener’s yearly harvest.
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