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All About Growing Parsnips

Despite being in the same vegetable family, parsnips don't get nearly as much attention as carrots. For that reason, at least one source refers to parsnips as "the neglected relative of the carrot."1 Due to the fact their popularity has been somewhat supplanted by the potato since the 18th century, you may have trouble finding parsnips in your local grocery store. Given its unique earthy taste and beneficial levels of potassium and folate, you might want to try your hand at growing this pale carrot cousin in your vegetable garden this year.

Parsnip Particulars: Interesting Facts About This Carrot Cousin

As a member of the Apiaceae family, parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) make their home among vegetables like carrots and celery, as well as aromatic herbs such as coriander, cumin, dill, fennel and parsley. They are native to the Mediterranean region and have been a popular food in Europe dating back to at least the ancient Romans, who were said to use it as both a food and a medicine.

Colonial settlers brought parsnips to America from England. The popularity of the parsnip began to decline in the 18th century due to increasing cultivation of a different root vegetable: the potato. Like carrots, parsnips have a hint of sweetness and a comparable bitterness when they are eaten with the skin. As for taste, some suggest raw parsnips taste like a cross between a carrot and a potato.

The smell of parsnips is said to be reminiscent of fresh parsley. As a hardy, cool-season crop, parsnips are characterized by long taproots and cream-colored skin and flesh. They are similar to a carrot in size and shape. For maximum sweetness, it is best to wait to harvest them until after the first frost. If you live in an area with mild winters, you can provide a heavy layer of mulch around your plants and wait to harvest your parsnips after the ground thaws in the spring.

Five Steps to Growing Parsnips

Although parsnips are biennials, they are most commonly grown as annuals. If summers in your area are short and mild, it's best to plant parsnips in late spring, a week or two after the last frost. In all other areas, you'll want to delay planting until early summer. For best results, sow your seeds about four months before your first fall frost. Of the utmost importance for growing success, you must use fresh parsnip seeds every year. Do not save any leftover seeds because they will not germinate in subsequent years. Below are five easy steps for growing parsnips:2,3,4,5

1.Seeds: As a root vegetable, parsnips are best planted from seed and you can sow them as soon as soil temperatures are consistently in the 50 to 54 degrees F (10 to 12 degrees C) range.

Use your finger or a trowel to create a small trench and, because parsnips are poor germinators, you'll want to sow two seeds every inch at a depth of about one-half inch. Space your rows 18 to 24 inches apart.

2.Soil: Parsnips prefer a well-draining soil with a pH in the slightly acidic to neutral range of 6.0 to 7.0. Loose, fertile soil that is free of hard clods and stones is best. Prior to planting, loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches and mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Never use fresh manure on root crops because it will cause the roots to fork and distort.

3.Sun: Parsnips will do best in full sun to partial shade.

4.Thinning: Once your parsnips develop at least two true leaves, you can thin them to 3 to 6 inches apart to give their taproots plenty of room to grow. Parsnips mature in about 16 weeks so you'll need to exercise patience while you wait for the first green sprouts to appear above the soil line.

5.Water: Water the soil immediately after planting to encourage germination. Provide at least 1 inch of water per week early on to promote strong taproot development and quick growth. As the plants mature, water only during very dry periods to encourage the roots to grow deeper in search of moisture.

You'll want to keep your garden bed free of weeds so they won't be competing with your parsnips for water and soil nutrients. When weeding around parsnip plants, take care you don't damage their roots, especially if you use a hoe. For that reason, regular hand weeding may be best. In terms of readying your seeds for planting, Mother Earth News suggests the following tips to speed the germination of parsnip seeds:6

About a week before planting, place your parsnip seeds on a wet paper towel and enclose them in an airtight container

Maintain the seeds in the container for five days at room temperature

On day six and beyond, check for the emergence of pale white sprouts indicating germination

Plant the seeds as soon as the first seeds have begun to germinate

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