Count on Growing Winter Parsnips for Dependable Cropping

Joan Gussow talks about cold weather crops and growing winter parsnips for a dependable harvest.

| February/March 2003

  • Growing winter parsnips ensures a dependable crop for the harvest.
    Growing winter parsnips ensures a dependable crop for the harvest.

  • Growing winter parsnips ensures a dependable crop for the harvest.

Learn about growing winter parsnips for dependable cropping in cold months.

If anyone is soliciting candidates for low point of the year, my trusty advisers and I vote for February. I used to have tacked on my bulletin board a disgusted letter to some editor declaring "February is a waste of time." If you're looking for garden pickings, this is mostly true.

Gail, our panel member in California, says February is fog, and even in this gardening state, there's almost nothing in her garden or the local farmer's market. Matters are even worse in colder places, where farmer's markets often shut down for winter and snow covers the back yards. (Knowing what Arizona summers are like, the rest of us try not to envy Barbara, our desert cohort, who manages to carry broccoli through winter under hoops and plastic.)

I hasten to add, however, that this cold season offers Northerners a couple of spectacular rewards. I plant carrots late, just so I have lots of them for winter; if I've protected them with a mulch of hay, I can keep grubbing them out through the season. They're unbelievably sweet from the cold; so good I could eat them raw every day — and often do.

Parsnips are the real winter reward, but the harvest is a lot more iffy. I've found when growing winter parsnips even very fresh seeds can be hard to germinate in Summer heat, when I usually plant them following spinach. I never harvest a lot, and last year I had none. But if the parsnips sprout, and if I've remembered to sow them where the low winter sun hits, there's usually enough of a temporary thaw sometime in February or March to wrest the survivors out of the ground, sauté them in a little butter and fall into gustatory ecstasy.

Although I've loved parsnips for years, I'd forgotten until I was browsing recently in my journal that late-winter parsnips were what first bonded me, eight years ago, to my present garden's soil. After more than a third of a century in one house, my husband, Alan, and I were gutting a battered old building we intended to transform into our last resting place, short of the grave. In July when the old beast was in the final stages of deconstruction, we seeded parsnips in the garden we'd created out back — confident that by late winter we would be living there to harvest them.

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