While they may not be as popular as their cousin, the carrot, parsnips are a hardy, cold-tolerant crop that, with a little education on your part, your customers just may love.
Parsnips are traditional northern European root vegetables that are surprisingly easy to grow in warmer climates, while also being extremely cold tolerant.
We will be learning from our friend Pam Dawling, author of Sustainable Market Farming, and her experience with growing parsnips.
Why Grow Parsnips?
Parsnips are workhorse root veggies that thrive in mild weather, store well, and are a popular traditional food. They can provide high yields for the time invested.
They also store well, giving them the benefit of providing veggies for sale after the harvest period is over.
This can give the grower time to rest a little and/or use the crop as flexible ‘filler’ in CSA boxes.
The grower can add more parsnips when other crops are in short supply, and add less when other crops are bountiful.
Varieties of Parsnips
There are not a ton of different varieties of parsnips to choose from. Most seed catalogs offer only one or two.
There are two main types: First, the ‘hollow crown’ types, where the leaves grow from an indentation in the top of the root.
The second type is the ‘flat crown’ type.
The hollow crown variety are harder to clean and the top of the root is not easily made usable.
Most varieties are open-pollinated, such as:
- Hollow Crown
- Harris Model
- Tender and True
- Cobham Improved
There are a few hybrid varieties as well:
All varieties take 100-120 days to maturity (DTM).
Pam favours Harris Model, Andover, and Tender and True on her farm.
Any decent soil will grow parsnips, but the best ones grow in deep, loose, and fertile sandy loams with good moisture-holding capacity.
They prefer cool temperatures, as this is best for flavour and appearance.
Parsnips do not want an overly rich soil, nor one that crusts easily or is full of rocks.
Their ideal pH is 6-6.5.
Pam sows parsnips between March and mid-April, or even late April.
Growers living in the south may be able to sow in the late summer, it just depends on your climate.
The soil temperature needs to be below 70°F (21°C).
Parsnips are slow to germinate, even under ideal conditions, so Pam dots radish seeds occasionally along the row to enable them to hoe before the parsnips germinate.
The emerging radishes can also help prevent soil crusting.
Aim for a depth of 0.25-0.8”, in rows 8” or more apart.
You should aim for the final spacing of 1.5-4” apart, this may require thinning as parsnips sprout out of the ground.
Root crops do well on raised beds because the soil stays loose and the roots can easily grow deep.
Avoid transplanting parsnips, as they can get damaged in the process.
Parsnips are ideal crops for pre-emergence flame-weeding.
The goal is to flame the bed the day before the expected emergence of the crop.
Use a soil thermometer to figure out which day to flame.
For more on flame weeding, check out this article.
Pests and Diseases
Parsnips can suffer from two kinds of canker: Itersonilia canker and Phomo canker.
Crop rotations can help avoid these diseases.
Carrot pest insects can also damage parsnips, so take the same precautions when thinning and harvesting if the carrot rust fly is present.
Harvesting of parsnips is a manual task on Pam’s farm, as they only grow a small quantity.
They are the last root crop to be dug up, as they are tolerant of temps down to 0°F (-18°C).
Root crops keep well in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration, with washed roots storing better than unwashed roots.
Don’t store root veg with fruits, such as apples or squash, as ethylene emitted by the ripe fruits can turn the roots bitter.
Parsnips can be stored for 6 months, if close to the freezing point, with high humidity of 90-95%.
If your winters are mild enough and you don’t have voles, you can store parsnips in the ground until spring, covering the bed with loose organic mulch (straw, tree leaves, spoiled hay).
Parsnips can survive soil temps of 0°F (-18°C).
They should be dug before growth resumes in spring, as these biennial plants will consume the root in producing flowering stems.
If you are already growing carrots, you might want to throw in a small batch of parsnips into the rotation and see how your customers react to them.
They will most likely never be as popular as carrots but may add some variety to your market stand and draw some customers in that way.
They are also a good crop to add to a CSA box when you have low yields of other crops and to provide variety as well.
We do not currently plan on growing parsnips, but depending on how well our carrots do this year, they may be a crop to think about planting next year.
We will keep you posted!
Do you grow parsnips in your garden or market farm? Let us know in the comments below.
Kathy & Jon
your friendly neighbourhood growers