Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More

parsnips
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.

Tomato Report 2014

I’m hurrying to get out this report to you, because here in the Willamette Valley it’s nearly tomato-starting time already.

Our long hot summer last year produced bountiful tomato harvests for many of my neighbors but a strangely scant one for me; apparently, the unusual heat made the plants repeatedly drop their blossoms. My report here is limited to the few varieties that produced fairly well in my garden.

A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper
A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper

Costoluto Genovese has deeply ribbed, meaty red fruits with large seed cavities. The lovely look of this fruit makes the bland taste all the more disappointing. Like most Italian tomatoes, this one has apparently been bred for sauce or drying, not for fresh eating. The low sugar and acid levels call for concentration. 

Tangerine is a medium-large to large, squat, old yellow-orange variety that won brief fame several years ago after scientists showed it to have more absorbable lycopene (an anti-oxidant that may protect against some cancers) than a typical red tomato.  Early in the season my Tangerine fruits seemed to have low acidity and an unremarkable flavor, but after mid-summer, as often happens with tomatoes, they tasted much better. The acid level, in fact, seemed unusually high for a yellow tomato.

Tangerine & Persimmon tomatoes
Tangerine and persimmon tomatoes. The cut one in the foreground is the Tangerine–I think!

Persimmon is an heirloom from the 1800s (says Territorial), from 1781 (says Henry Field’s), from about 1983 (says Gary Ibsen), or from the 1880s (says a Seed Savers Exchange member in Wisconsin).  The tomato is originally from Russia, says Burpee. It was grown by Thomas Jefferson, says Henry Field’s.

Whatever its origins, Persimmon turned out for me much like Tangerine—in the appearance of the fruit, the size of the plant (both are indeterminate), and earliness (about 80 days). But Persimmon’s skin color was a softer orange, truly reminiscent of its namesake, and the fruit tended to develop a navel-like blossom end. The flesh may have been a little less tart and flavorful than that of Tangerine, but Persimmon also had an appealing creaminess. My Persimmon plants were a little less productive that my Tangerine plants.

I had trouble choosing a favorite between these two big, delicious, blemish-free tomatoes. In the kitchen I didn’t try to keep them separate. I can tell you, though, that ratatouille made with Tangerine or Persimmon tomatoes or both is as tart as it should be and at the same time startlingly sweet.

Druzba, a Bulgarian red tomato, is about the same size and shape as Tangerine and Persimmon (Burpee calls Druzba a “mini-beefsteak”) but has bigger seed cavities and apparently even higher acidity. I will certainly grow it again.

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomato
Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes

Striped tomatoes are the rage now, and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, bred by Bradley Gates of Wild Boar Farms, is the best I’ve tasted so far. My friend Wendy, to whom I gave a plant, reported that it was “early, prolific, very attractive, and excellent tasting.” It wasn’t prolific for me, but I have high hopes that it will be this year.

If you’re still not sure which tomatoes to plant this year, you may want to also consult my Tomato Reports from 2012 and 2009-11.