Posted by: sweetpea | April 11, 2008


Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) belong to the umbelliferae family, which also includes carrots, chervil, parsley, fennel and celeriac.  It is a biennial, developing it’s root and vegetative growth in the first year, and then flowering in the second year. It is a vegetable that is in the ground for most of the year, often one of the first to be sown and one of the last to be harvested especially since the taste benefits from exposure to frost. So if you only have a small veg patch it may not be the most productive use of your space, however roast parsnips with a sunday roast or Xmas dinner are fantastic especially if they are homegrown.  By the way I’ve only just learnt that apparently you can eat parsnips raw, so I may try that with this years crop if I remember.

Growing conditions

Parsnips like rich free draining soils so sandy or loamy soils are ideal.  If grown on clay or stony soil they tend to develop smaller forked roots, which will taste just as good but are of course much trickier to deal with in the kitchen.  They often develop forked roots when grown in soil that has recently been manured too.  Parsnips don’t like very acidic soils but will grow happily in slightly acidic, neutral or slightly alkaline soils.  If your soil isn’t ideal then you can either try and improve your soil structure (by adding lime if to acidic, or sand/organic matter if too heavy), grow them in raised beds, or even try growing them in pipes as some of the competition growers do.  Alternatively you could use the method I will describe below which I use on my plot.

Making a growing hole for parsnips

Preparing the ground

I tried this a couple of years ago and it worked a treat, so I use it every year now even though it is a little bit of a faff.  I start off with a thickish bamboo cane and push it into the ground as deeply as I can, usually about a foot, then I wriggle it around to create a hole which widens towards the soil surface.  Next I use a thicker pole to enlarge the hole, what you want is a ‘parsnip’ shaped hole.  Once I’m happy with my hole I fill it with compost, I use whatever I have available at the time.  The idea behind this is that you are creating a growing environment that will not restrict the growth of the parsnip root, so you should end up with a nice long straight parsnip come the winter.  You will need to create a hole per parsnip, and they should be 20cm apart.

Sowing and subsequent care

Parsnips are well known for having seed that doesn’t keep, so it is best to start with fresh seed each year. Seed can be sown anytime between late winter and late spring, although I think early spring is probably the most ideal in terms of the ground being workable. Germination will take about 3-4 weeks, during which time the seedlings may be overwhelmed by weeds so it is a good idea to keep the area well weeded.  Make sure that you have marked where your parsnips are or you may forget they’re there, some people like to sow a quick maturing crop like radish or lettuce in between rows just to mark out their position and also get an extra crop in.  To avoid failed germination I usually sow 5-6 seeds in the centre of each hole position, it should be easy to tell where this is as the compost you’ve filled the hole with will look different to the surrounding soil.  I then sprinkle over a light covering of compost, just enough to cover the seeds.  When the seeds have germinated, you will need to thin them so that each hole position only has one seedling growing.  Once this is done, they can be left to grow happily, just weeding from time to time. 

Harvesting and Storage

They will be ready to harvest form mid-Autumn, but are best left in the ground until the first frosts have arrived as this will increase the sweetness of the parsnip.  Parsnips can be left in the ground over winter, harvesting as and when needed, although when the ground is frozen they may not be easy to dig up.  Parsnips can be stored in a clamp, or as I did last year, in a box filled with damp sand (mine even started sprouting again!).  You will need to chop off the leaves close to the crown first, and once the box is full it will need to be stored in a cool dark place. 

To dig up parsnips I simply use a fork to loosen the ground and then get a good grip on the top of the parsnip, I twist the root round making sure I’m keeping it upright. Once loose it should be possible to pull it up, you will loose the end, but I usually wuld cut that off anyway.  If you’re soil is heavier then it may be more difficult to dig them up and may require the digging of a hole at the side of the parsnip in order to prize it free.




  1. Glad to see you back AC!

    Excellent advice on the parships. Everything one would need to know, to get a good crop.

    Just one problem……….

    They are the devil’s root, a foul tasting culinary abomination…Yuk, Yuk, Yuk!

    GM – Shuddering at the thought!

  2. Wow – what a great tip!
    Although I have already sown my parsnips, I’m sure I can find space on the plot to try this technique with the seeds I have left over. Probably just as well seeing that stored seeds become terrible germinators over time.

  3. Thanks GM and KG 🙂

    GM, How can you say they are horrible…I would agree with you if you were refering to boiled parsnips, but roasted ones, if done properly are yummy, honey roast parsnips are especially good. But I guess everyones tastebuds are different…I for one can’t see what the appeal is with olives!

    KG, glad you’re thinking of giving this a try. I had thought to add another method that I read about recently on A4A I think. It involves creating long tubes out of newspaper, a bit like the toilet roll method but longer, and starting them off in those before planting them out, tube and all, later on. But that would involve having to dig a deep hole to plant the tube in…not sure how easy that would be….so think I’ll stick to my existing method.


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