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Parsnips - Growing and Caring for Parsnip Plants

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How to Grow Parsnips

Different varieties of parsnips may be long and thin or wide at the shoulders, tapering toward the tip.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Overview:

Parsnips look like colorless carrots. They are a close cousin to carrots, but with their own complex sweetly spicy earthiness. Parsnips are native to the Mediterranean region and have been a popular European food since at least the ancient Romans. The early English settlers brought parsnips with them to America, but they have been overshadowed by both carrots and potatoes.

However they grow well in most areas, although they require a long growing season. A bit of frost will sweeten their flavor and the roots can be stored and used throughout the winter.

Description:

Parsnips are grown predominately for their long tap roots, which look like pale carrots.
  • Leaves: The first year's foliage resembles celery, with toothed, pinnate leaves. The 2nd year it forms a muti-branched plant that can grow to 5 feet tall.

  • Flowers: In the second year, umbrels of yellow flowers, much like carrots or dill, will form. To save seeds, leave a few plants unharvested and allow them to go to seed.

Botanical Name:

Pastinaca sativa

Common Name:

Parsnips

Exposure:

Full sun to Partial Shade.

USDA Hardiness ZonesHardiness Zone

Hardiness does not play a factor with parsnips because parsnips are biennials grown as an annual crop.

Plant Size

18 - 24" (h) x 3 - 6" (w)

When to Harvest:

Parsnips require the entire growing season to mature, about 3 ½ - 4 months. They are usually harvested in late fall, when the tops are about 1 ½ - 2 inches around. Most varieties will reach 8 - 12 inches long. To ensure you get the whole root, loosen the soil with a fork before harvesting. Parsnips store for a long time.

You can leave your parsnips in the ground to harvest throughout winter (if the soil is not frozen) and in the early spring. They sweeten toward spring, as the plants get ready to begin growing again. However once the tops re-sprout, the flavor starts to go downhill and the roots get touch and fibrous.

Note: If you have sensitive skin, the sap from parsnip leaves can cause a sunburn-like rash.

Suggested Varieties:

  • All American - Very sweet and fine-grained with a small core. (120 - 130 days)

  • Hollow Crown Mild honey flavor, uniform roots with few side roots. (105 days)

  • Harris Model - Early season with tender flesh and no hollow crown (85 - 90 days)

  • The Student - Large roots with a mild, nuttiness. Long season. (180 days)

How to Use Parsnips:

Tender, young parsnips can be grated and eaten without cooking.

Parsnips can be used as a carrot substitute in just about any cooked dish. They are popular steamed and mashed, often mixed in with potatoes. When adding to soups and stews, wait until the final 20-30 minutes of cooking, because they soften quickly.

Parsnips really shine as a roasted vegetable, sprinkled with fresh herbs.

If your parsnips become overgrown, removing the center core will make them less bitter.

Growing Tips:

Soil: Parsnips prefer a slightly acidic soil pH in the range of 6.0 to 6.5. As with all root crops, they need a loose soil to grow long and straight. Make sure it is well-draining, so the roots don't rot.

Planting:Parsnips grow best in cool weather and are direct seeded in the garden in mid-spring. Parsnip seed does not remain viable for more than one season, so always start with fresh seed. Even fresh seed can have a low germination rate, so seed thickly. Plant ½ to 3/4 inches deep. Since parsnip seed has a tough time breaking through crusted soil, many gardeners cover the seed with only perlite. Another trick is to plant radish seeds with your parsnips. As the radishes are pulled, they loosen the soil for the later emerging parsnips.

You will need to thin the plants when they are a few inches tall, to give the roots space to develop. It is difficult to transplant parsnips, because disturbing their roots causes them to fork.

Parsnips can be grown in containers, but they'll need a pot that contains a depth of at least 12 inches of soil.

Maintenance:

At least an inch of water per week is vital for good root development. A regular deep watering, rather than a sprinkling now and then, will encourage deep root growth and keep the plants from stressing.

Fresh manure should not be used on root crops because it causes the roots to fork and distort.

Weeds will compete with the young seedlings. Keep them out of the area, so they don't compete with the parsnips for water and nutrients. Hoeing is a better technique than cultivating, since you don't want to harm the parsnip roots.

Pests & Problems:

Pests
  • Carrot Fly - lay their eggs on the soil near plants and larvae burrow into the roots. Don't plant near carrots or celery and consider planting some onions nearby.

  • Celery Fly - leaves shrivel and get small brown blisters. It won't harm the roots, but remove the leaves to get rid of the maggots.

  • Wireworms - will make small regular holes
Diseases
  • Canker - dark patches on the root's shoulders. Affects injured roots. Raise the soil pH closer to 7.0.

  • Leaf Spot - small brown spots on leaves will not affect the roots.
Cultural
  • Pale Leaves - If the tops of your parsnips start turning a pale green, it means they need some food.

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