Until late in the nineteenth century, the parsnip was the very model of what a root vegetable should be. Listen to Messieurs Vilmorin and Andrieux, in a popular work of the last century, The Vegetable Garden, eulogize on what has become our most prominent current variety, the Hollow Crown, or Student, parsnip; "Root handsome, long, thick, very clean skinned, with a fine neck surrounded by a circular gutter-like depression, from the centre of which the leaves issue, the root being swollen all round it."
This handsome root had reason to be swollen with pride, if nothing else, because it had been esteemed on the tables of Europe since the time of Tiberian Rome. In the Middle Ages, it reigned supreme over Lenten tables because it was nutritious, filling and delectably sweet. It reigned until a tuber from the New World, the arriviste potato, displaced it by being blander and more versatile.
'Hollow Crown' is one of the oldest varieties of parsnip, with probably still the best flavour of all, with a depth and richness unmatched by most other varieties. It has been grown since at least the 1850's and is still very popular among gardeners in the know.
This reliable favourite has long smooth tapering roots, a tender texture and delicious flavour. The best flavour comes in cooler areas when parsnips are harvested after the first frosts as this causes their flesh to convert starches into sugar. May be left in the ground during winter, and pulled as required. 130 days to harvest.
Prepare the site:
Parsnips are not fussy about what soil types they grow in. For all plants that have deep-growing roots as the parsnip and if you wish to grow the long, ‘perfect’ looking parsnip, you will need deep soil, that has recently been manured and is stone free. If parsnips hit a stone while growing they tend to fork.
They grow best in a light, rich soil. A generous amount of compost or humus in some other form, incorporated in the soil will help provide soil aeration and a uniform distribution of moisture, besides the source of food supply for the plants.
Sowing: Sow February to May
Parsnip seeds have a very short vitality; fresh seed should be secured each year.
If you are going to sow as early as February or March, you may wish to warm the soil with cloches or similar, leaving them in place until the seedlings have developed two true leaves. Sowings made in late March to early May should not need a cloche.
Parsnip germination rates can be low and seeds germinate slowly. It can be difficult to get a full row of seedlings. However, once parsnips have germinated they are really easy to grow. Soaking the seed overnight may help to hasten germination.
Sowing Direct - The traditional method:
Sow three or four seeds at 15cm (6in) intervals, 13mm (0.5in) deep in rows 25 to 30cm (10 to 12in) apart. When the seedlings are about 2.5cm (1in) high thin out to leave one seedling per 15cm (6in) station. Don’t leave this job long as they need room to grow.,
It is wise to mulch the rows after planting as the soil must remain cool and moist during the germination period when the seeds are in danger of drying out. Water regularly.
Weed using a hoe or by hand but be careful not to disturb the young seedlings.
You may also consider planting radish seed along with the parsnips; they will mark the row and keep the crust from hardening, making life a little easier for the parsnip pushing through. As the radishes become of edible size, use them and weed and thin the parsnip seedlings to stand 6 inches apart.
An “alternative” method!
Parsnip seeds take a relatively long time to germinate, around six weeks, and in this time there are many variables that can affect their viability - particularly drought or water logging and the wide fluctuations we can have in spring from below zero to double figures Celsius compound the difficulties. Then, of course, there are pests!
To improve germination results, try sowing into cardboard cylinders. This method enables us to more closely monitor temperature and moisture levels during germination and avoids the difficulty of disturbing the long root of the parsnip.
Collect the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls or make newspaper cylinders made by wrapping newspaper around a brush stave, secure with tape. Fill with compost, stand in a plastic box and moisten. Sow three or four seeds into each cylinder and cover with a little more compost.
Keep watered in an unheated greenhouse until germination. Allow only the strongest plant in each cylinder to grow on. Once the little plants have established themselves, dibber the cardboard cylinders into the bed that will be their home until harvesting.
Harvesting: Harvest mid September to early April.
The tops will die down once the parsnips are ready to be harvested (late October) however it is traditional to wait until after the first frost to harvest, it is said to improve the flavour. Use a fork to carefully lift them. Don’t harvest all of them immediately; the best method of storage is to leave them in the ground, but lifting a few extra in November will ensure you still have parsnips to eat even if the soil is frozen.
Harvesting can continue right up until early April. In spring dig as needed until new tops start to grow, then dig all that remains and store them in a cold place to prevent sprouting. After the growth of new tops begins, the roots lose flavour.
An Ancient Crop:
The parsnip has long been an inmate of the garden, and was formerly much used.
In Catholic times it was famous Lent root, being eaten with salted fish.
In the North of Scotland parsnips were mixed with potatoes and a little butter for the children - poor children who apparently were very fond of it and thrived upon it.
In the North of Ireland a 'pleasant table beverage' was prepared from the roots with hops.
Parsnip wine was made and an excellent spirit could be distilled after a similar preparatory process to that which was used for potatoes.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 5 grams Average Seed Count 1100 Seeds Seeds per gram 220 seeds per gram Common Name 2022 harvest, for planting in 2023
Family Apiaceae Genus Pastinaca Species sativa Cultivar Hollow Crown Hardiness Hardy Biennial Time to Sow February to May Time to Harvest Early autumn to mid-spring.