Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More

The longest root here ended up in the compost; it had dipped below the water table and so was rotting. The others broke off at about a foot below the soil surface, as usually happens with my parsnips.

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.

The Tomato Report 2009-2011

Clockwise from upper left: Virginia Sweets, Carbon, Anna Russian, Sweet Pea Currant, Black Cherry, Flamme, Black Prince. Center: Chocolate Stripes and Red Zebra.

A dozen seed catalogs arrived here in December, and now planting time for tomato seeds is just around the corner. What to grow in 2012?

For the past three years a couple of local friends and I have been sharing notes on the tomato varieties we’ve grown. Now I’d like to share my notes with all of you, starting with last year’s. Notes on the 2010 and 2009 tomatoes follow those on the 2011 crop.

I must warn you that 2011 was a strange year in western Oregon; summer came late, and we had few days of really hot weather. It was a bad year for melons, squashes, cucumbers, and peppers as well as for many tomato varieties. Depending on your climate and luck, varieties that failed me last summer may thrive for you.


Jersey Devil is a long, tapered, meaty red tomato; it looks like a ripe bull’s-horn pepper. Or, rather, it’s supposed to look like that, but none of my fruits turned red. According to Tomato Growers the time from planting to harvest is only 80 days, but this must mean 80 days of hot, hot weather.

Tomato Growers says that Carbon is among the darkest of the “black” tomatoes, but its skin, actually, is  a blend of pinkish-red and green; the beautiful blackness is on the inside of this oblate tomato. Whereas the catalog says Carbon weighs to 8 to 12 ounces, my fruits were as large as 30.5 ounces. Although this tomato is supposed to be resistant to cracking, most of my fruits cracked a bit (staking helps). This tomato is a little late–80 days, according to Tomato Growers–but its flavor is outstandingly rich. I would choose it over Black Krim (see my notes on 2010).

Again I grew Juliet, a hybrid from Tomato Growers. The fruits ripened slowly but surely, and I dried loads of them.

Silvery Fir Tree, a compact variety with unusually fine foliage,was recommended by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Unfortunately, the 2- to 3-inch round fruits were bland. More disappointing still was the ripening time—58 days, according to Tomato Growers, but I got only three or four ripe fruits from as many vines; the rest of the fruits turned from green to fall rot.

Early Wonder is supposed to produce tasty, round, 6-ounce fruits on determinate vines. For me it produced only a few late, pinkish fruits.

Other gardeners in this area swear by the cold-hardy Czech tomato Stupice (“stu-peach-ka”), but for me this variety has been bland and relatively unproductive. It is early, though: The 2- to 3-inch fruits on indeterminate vines start ripening in only 52 days.

My Virginia Sweets were just as described in the catalog: productive, indeterminate, a little on the late side (80 days), with enormous yellow and red fruits. One of mine weighed 35.5 ounces! The fruits are much like those of Pineapple (see 2010) but generally bigger and less prone to deformity.

Purplish-skinned Black Cherry has wonderful flavor, with the high sugar and acid typical of cherry tomatoes plus the chocolate note of black tomatoes. The vines fruit moderately early, but I found it hard to judge ripeness by appearance.

A Siberian variety introduced by Nichols, Black Prince is 2 to 3 inches in diameter, slightly elongated, brick-red to green on the outside, deep red on the inside, and tasty. This tomato’s only fault is that it’s prone to sunscald. The vines are very productive and rather early.

Celebrity is a hybrid tomato, a 1984 All-American Selection that’s said to have exceptionally flavorful 7- to 8-ounce fruits. The vines were slow to produce for me. I got only a few round to pointed fruits.

An extremely productive oxheart variety, Anna Russian is considered an Oregon heirloom. Here’s the story: Brenda Hillenius, a member of Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), got the seeds from her grandfather, Kenneth Wilcox, a longtime Oregon gardener who said he had gotten the seeds from a Russian immigrant, whose family had sent seeds of the tomato from Russia. With no place to grow the tomatoes herself, Brenda sent the seeds to another SSE member, Craig LeHouillier of North Carolina. (I don’t know who Anna was; on first hearing this story I thought she was the immigrant, but in Brenda’s note to Craig, which he shared with me, she referred to the Russian as him.) Craig planted the seeds, saved the seeds of the resulting fruits, and shared Anna Russia through SSE. The variety is now available through many seed companies.

The indeterminate vines produce oodles of early, heart-shaped, meaty, pink-red fruits of variable size but mostly about 1 pound. The shoulders turn yellow when exposed to strong sun, but few of the fruits cracked at all. Like the fruits of Orange Russian (see 2010), they are very flavorful. I will probably grow this tomato every year from now on.

I got very few ripe fruits of Red Zebra, a beautiful little red tomato whose skins bear vertical golden stripes. As in 2009, this tomato was prone to spots of some sort.

Chocolate Stripes, from Tomato Fest, has 3- to 4-inch mahogany fruits with vertical olive stripes. Almost none of the fruits ripened for me. Like the Red Zebras, they didn’t taste nearly as good as they looked.

Sweet Pea Currant tomato, a low, sprawling plant that produces zillions of yellow flowers, is said to be the immediate ancestor of the modern tomato. Its drought- and disease-tolerance makes it useful in breeding programs, but I can’t see that this plant has much use in the garden. The tiny, thick-skinned, slightly bitter fruits ripened slowly and unevenly, mostly on the underside of the viney mat. For me, they weren’t worth the trouble of picking. I got the seeds from Tomato Fest; they are also available from Territorial and SSE.

Flamme, or Jaune Flamme, is a French heirloom with 1 1/2- to 2-inch oval fruits that are yellow-orange inside and out and that virtually never crack. The fruits somehow feel especially smooth, almost creamy, in my mouth. Fruiting was early, and I saw no sign of disease whatsoever in these extremely productive vines. The seeds came from Tomato Fest.

Varieties from 2011 that I will definitely plant again are Flamme, Anna Russian, Black Prince, Black Cherry, and Juliet.


Principe de Borghese, a determinate variety from Tuscany, is variable in size and shape—1 to 1½ inches wide, round to oval—and it has a little nipple at the blossom end. Principe is juicier than other Roma types, but it’s still bland, not very sweet and not very sour.

Momotaro, according to Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery, is now quite popular in California as well as in Japan. My friend Sally didn’t much like this indeterminate variety, which is about 2 inches across, round to oval, pinkish red, and very firm. I didn’t care for the thick skin, but I liked the sweet, tart flavor. This tomato might be good for canning (after peeling, of course) and for shipping.

Originally from Ukraine and sold by Nichols and Pinetree, Black Krim is 3 to 4 inches across and oblate, with mixed green and red skin that’s very prone to cracking. I loved this tomato for its beautiful green and red interior—red in the center, with green gel around the seeds and dark outer flesh. The flesh is mild-flavored and juicy, the vine indeterminate.

Pineapple, available from Nichols and Pinetree, is a big, irregular, late tomato with red and yellow flesh and a tendency to crack. I wouldn’t be able to distinguish this variety from a red-yellow Brandywine cross that happened in my own garden. The vine is indeterminate.

I bought seeds of Golden Queen from Pinetree, though I don’t see this “heirloom” (it’s at least fifty years old) in the 2010 catalog. Golden Queen produces lots of medium-size, round, flawless yellow-orange tomatoes. Like most yellow tomatoes, they’re a little bland, but they’re not bad at all.

Two hybrids, Champion and Early Goliath, produced big, round, perfect red fruits, as usual.

Little, early Bloody Butcher and smaller Sweet Million were also good, although the latter never seems as prolific as Sweet 100.


Juliet is an extremely productive vine with small plum-shaped fruits. They have some of the flavor and juiciness of cherry tomatoes, but, unlike most cherry tomatoes, they resist cracking. I have dried thousands of Juliets, after cutting them in half lengthwise.

Hard Rock was a freebie from Totally Tomatoes, and its unappetizing name almost kept me from trying it. Actually, the name suits it well. This tomato is oval and very firm, like a stone out of the creek. But it has better flavor than paste types like San Marzano, a strong red color, and extreme disease resistance. I’ve used it a lot for drying, cut crosswise into rounds, and also for salsa.

Bloody Butcher is early, with medium-small, bright-red fruits and potato-leaved vines.

Stupice is smallish, round, and early. It’s my friend Sally’s favorite tomato for dependability and taste.

I’ve had trouble keeping track in the garden of which big, round tomato is which, but all the ones I got from Totally Tomatoes were excellent. They included Early Goliath, which is supposed to ripen in only 55 days; I’m not sure that’s correct. Big Beef Hybrid ripens later (73 days) and is very big. First Lady II (66 days) was good, too. Champion (62 days) is a little smaller and always good; I’ve grown it for many years.

Marcellino is a cherry tomato that resists cracking.

I selected most of the 2009 tomatoes from Totally Tomatoes for their disease resistance. Those that failed in this regard were Red Zebra (prone to spots of some sort) and San Marzano (extremely productive but prone to internal blossom-end rot and mold, besides being virtually tasteless).