Parsnips look like large, cream-colored carrots but are milder, sweeter, and cook quickly. Once you discover their taste, you just might keep on raising them.
Parsnips take patience to start, but once they’re up, they’re hardy and easy plants to care for and can add significantly to your food supply.
Parsnips don’t like nitrogen, but do like cool weather, so in early May, plant your seeds a half inch to an inch deep, two to three inches apart or thicker if you plan on thinning. Parsnips take up to three weeks to germinate, so cover the row to keep it from drying out. You can use a board, paper, cardboard, or mulch. To help you keep track, plant a row of radishes nearby on the same day. About the time the radishes are ready to eat, your parsnips should be peeking through, and you’ll need to remove the cover. Keep checking though as the radishes may grow more slowly than you think.
At first, parsnips look like celery or parsley, but as they grow, they take on their own characteristics. Keep them weeded and watered. They take a long time to develop, so don’t try them until after the first frost brings out their flavor and sweetness.
Parsnips are cold-hardy, and even in the North, you can leave them in the garden all winter and use them in the spring before they start growing again. But you’ll want to use them for food in winter, so in late fall, after you’ve harvested all your other vegetables and before the ground freezes hard, you can turn your attention to your parsnips.
Parsnips grow deeper than carrots so you’ll need to dig with a tree spade beside the row in order to avoid hurting the roots. If your soil is loose, after you’ve dug down a ways, you can grab the top half of the parsnip and pull it up. Cut the tops as you would carrots, leaving about a half inch of stem. Wash, allow to air dry, and package in large plastic bags lined with absorbent material like toweling or an old sweat shirt. Store in the refrigerator with your carrots. Or if you have a root cellar, you might try other means such as packing in sand.
To save seed, leave one or two of your best specimens in the ground to overwinter. Cover with mulch to be on the safe side. Parsnips are biennials. They’ll grow a flower stalk in the second year which will produce seed for you. You can also take a leftover parsnip from the refrigerator and plant it for seed in the spring. As your seed plants grow, stake and tie them so they don’t topple in the wind. In August or thereabouts, cut heads of dry-looking seeds and lay them on screens to finish drying. One plant will provide enough seed for many years, and you can share with friends and neighbors.
You can cook parsnips and mash with butter and salt and pepper. Or you can mash them with carrots and potatoes. Another tasty way to use them is roasted with pieces of potatoes, carrots, green peppers, onions, beets, zucchini, or whatever vegetables you have on hand. Drizzle a little olive oil over, sprinkle with salt and pepper and an herb like basil or oregano, roast in the oven, and enjoy!