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Parsnips are hardly a great vegetable, but they make a pleasant change of pace once in a while. Curiously, for such a blah veggie (try scorzonera instead, or parsley root or chervil root), there is a flourishing literature on cultivars. Though there are white and yellow parsnips, the true division is by shape, and tripartate, so: bulbous (stocky with round "shoulders"); wedge (longer than bulbous, with broad "shoulders"); and bayonet (long and narrow--much the commonest type).
There are literally hundreds of cultivars, many unknown and unavailable to home gardeners. Watson's book Heirloom Vegetables says that the cultivar Student is considered by some to be the same as "Hollow Crown" (a common catalogue offering) but by others to be a distinct (and superior) strain--one seedsman (a nonprofit organization, so more credible than a strictly commercial one) says it has the "most delicious, mellow flavor of any parsnip we've tried." Other sources concur. But it's a right royal pain to find seed for the Student (indeed, right now it comes only from U.K. seedsmen), and this is not a vegetable that looms large in our or, we daresay, most people's lives; thus, the common offerings Hollow Crown, Harris Model, All American, and the newer Andover are probably very nearly as good.
If we were fussy about it, we'd seek out the Student; some UK seedsmen have US outlets. But we doubt if the flavor differences from cultivar to cultivar are really all that significant. Frankly, with all the other interesting and tasty root vegetables available, parsnips seem rather boring and low in garden priority.
Beware: parsnip seeds are notoriously short-lived. If you aren't saving you own seed annually, don't try to be cheap and use last season's leftovers--get fresh seed every year.
Parsnips are normally planted out direct. The soil temperature for optimum germination is pretty high, though they are viable down to rather cool temperatures. In our climate, most sources agree that you can sow from "early spring" till as late as mid-July. Now parsnips, like most roots (carrots are the notable exception) are slow-growing, with 120 days as a typical "days to maturity" figure. They are much improved by exposure to at least one good frost, so we don't want them ready too soon, lest they be overlarge and woody by the first frost; if we assume a first frost sometime in mid-October (though the average first "hard" frost, a low in the mid 20s, isn't till mid-November, we'll usually have one or more light ones well before then), we work back to a planting in mid-June. That is consonant with what several sources say for parsnips in this sort of climate.
Parsnips can tolerate any sort of soil, but--as we noted above--they, and all "roots", do vastly better on soil that is very loose and friable, else they get stunted, show forked roots, and generally sit in their corners sucking lemons and sulking. For best results, dig your bed so as to loosen the soil as deeply as you can possibly manage, and remove all rocks and as many pebbles as possible, working in organic matter or even straight sand to make it good and loose. They like the more or less standard garden-soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8, or even a little lower, maybe 6.3.
It is also wise to not use much manure in roots beds--and absolutely never any that is not thoroughly composted--or you'll have forked roots galore. Parsnips need good sun exposure. Like almost all roots, they are not frost-sensitive.
(It is wise to prepare one whole bed that way, for all your root crops--carrots, scorzonera, root parsley, and the like; in fact, you can do two beds that way, and alternate your root crops with anything else-- for us, bush beans--that ought not to go in the same ground two years running.)
Parsnip seeds have an erratic and low germination rate even under optimum conditions; and in the cold, damp soils of early spring, germination is even more of a problem. It is wise to plant at least a couple of seeds at each point where a plant is wanted (you can't save them year to year anyway), then see what emerges and thin--if necessary--to the most vigorous seedling when they look like they're starting to compete. To reduce germination time, before planting put your seeds in fairly warm (but not hot, lest you cook them) water, then let the water cool quickly; leave the seeds in the water--kept lukewarm--for about 12 hours before planting them. Parsnips can be spaced at 4 inches, especially in a deep-dug or raised bed; some sources say 3 inches, but if you want good-sized roots, it's best not to push the spacing too tight.
(Some gardeners like to treat parsnip seeds as carrot seeds are often treated: mix in a radish seed or two at every sowing spot, so the earlier, more aggressive radish seedling can break the surface for the parsnip--or carrot--seedling, then pull the radish stem when the later root-crop seedling emerges; we don't like putting radishes, a crucifer, in any place that is not a part of that season's crucifer beds in a rotation scheme.)
Parsnips will take anywhere from two up to fully four weeks to germinate, so be patient.
Growing is routine for root crops: keep them watered lightly but frequently, and cultivate thoroughly but carefully and shallowly.
Also as with most root crops, parsnips famously improve notably in taste after at least one and preferably a few frosts (it has to do with temperature-triggered conversion of starches to sugars). They can be dug up as wanted and needed after the first frost or two; they can even stand in the garden right through the winter. They should not be dug before they have been through at least one good frost.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.
Parsnips can also be propagated by cutting off the very tops of newly harvested plants, waiting for them to sprout, then re-planting them.
Parsnips are reported to have originated in the Mediterranean area, where they were first domesticated milennia ago. The Greeks were quite fond of them; the Romans liked them as dessert, preparing them as little cakes served with fruit and honey (Tiberius imported them from France and Germany to his domicile on Capri).
In the Middle Ages, European babies were given parsnip roots as pacifiers. By the 16th century, parsnips were being cultivated in Germany, England, and soon thereafter in the American colonies (where the colonists used them for puddings, bread, casseroles, stews, purees, pies, and even wine)--even the native Americans soon took to growing and storing them for winter eating.
Considering how minor a role they have in today's cuisine, it is remarkable to recall that till the spreading popularity of the newly arrived American potato in the 18th century, parsnips were perhaps the premier vegetable in European cookery. The potato, however, soon pulled ahead of them, and eventually they receded almost completely from the public consciousness.
The leaves of parsnips' "hobo cousin", Wild Parsnips, contain a substance that can cause serious skin burns; the garden variety does not have that effect.
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