At last week’s book club meeting, in the midst of a discussion of race and gender in nineteenth-century America and the founding of the U.S. Geological Survey, somebody asked the inevitable sort of question: How do you grow parsnips?
Our husbands think we talk about them at these meetings. We do, sometimes. But more often the talk turns to gardening.
I felt an immediate surge of affection for the new member who asked about parsnips. Parsnip lovers are rarities, it seems. Why is this? Who can dislike that carroty flavor combined with extra sweetness? Is the parsnip just too blandly white next to its sunny cousin the carrot? Or is the parsnip so pricey in the market that most people never even try it?
Why such a humble root should cost so much is puzzling in itself, but at least I could take a stab at the new member’s question. For my big parsnip crops of the past couple of years I must thank my friend Lisa, who told me to toss the seeds onto bare soil in February. This works because parsnip seeds require constant moisture for about two weeks while they think about sprouting. Here in the Willamette Valley, we generally have that constant moisture in February. Our frosts continue until mid-May, but that matters not at all to the hardy parsnip.
This year February was so strangely dry that I wonder whether Lisa’s parsnip seeds have germinated. As for me, I’ve held off planting. As I dig the last of last year’s crop, with roots averaging 8 inches across and 1½ feet long, I’m thinking I’d like this year’s parsnips to be a little smaller.
Most gardeners know that you’re supposed to leave your parsnips in the ground until after the first frost to sweeten them up. This is what I’ve done, though I don’t know that I wouldn’t like a less-sweet parsnip. Usually I leave most of my roots in the ground for much longer still. A virtue of parsnips is that you can store them right where they have grown all through the winter—unless the water table rises into their root zone, which causes them to rot, or unless the weather is so brutally cold that a mound of mulch won’t keep them from freezing.
But when you plant parsnips in February for digging in late fall and winter you’re at least doubling the usual four-month growing period. And when parsnips grow for that long they develop two problems: They get so big they become hard to dig, and they develop a hard core that gets bigger and tougher over time. By mid-winter the parsnips may have as much core as tender flesh, which makes for much effort in the kitchen and a big pile of trimmings. And then in late winter the plants sprout new top growth, because, like their carrot cousins, they are biennial. As parsnips prepare to produce seeds, their roots become entirely tough and inedible. So last week I dug the last of the parsnips that we’ll eat this winter. The rest I’ll till under or let go to seed.
We didn’t talk at book club about parsnip varieties. It may be that the variety I’ve been growing, All-American, is more prone to tough cores than others I might try, such as Tender and True, which is described as “almost coreless,” and Harris Early Model, which is said to have no core at all. Considering the high water tables here in winter, maybe the short- and thick-rooted German varieties would be an even better alternative. (Readers, if you’ve had success with particular varieties I hope you’ll share your comments.)
Regardless of the variety, the best course may be to plant parsnips later, dig them promptly after the first frost, and store them out of the ground. So, here’s how I tentatively recommend growing parsnips: Plant them late spring, around the time of the last frost. Use fresh seeds; old ones won’t sprout. Keep the seeds moist for two to three weeks, until they germinate (Next time I may try covering them with a board, as I do carrot seeds, or I even try germinating them on damp paper towels). Don’t give parsnips too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer; it’s said to make their roots hairy. Let them grow for 105 to 130 days, depending on the variety, to maturity. Start digging them as soon thereafter as you like. If you have time to devise some out-of-ground storage system, such as a clamp or box of sand, dig them all soon after the first autumn frost.
Preparing parsnips for the table is easy when you have no big, tough cores to cut out. Betty Fussel recommends boiling the roots, dousing them in cold water, and then slipping off their skins, but parsnips have no more in the way of skins than carrots, which I rarely peel at all. Just to make sure my parsnips are fully clean, though, I peel them with a swivel peeler. Then I use them in most of the ways you might use carrots. They are especially good roasted, on their own or along with carrots or chunks of squash or wedges of sweet potato, or pureed in soup flavored with nutmeg, as in my recipe here.