Monday, 16 January 2012

The Life of Pa

Yes, this was meant to be a play on words - you have read "The Life of Pi", by Yann Martel,  haven't you??

This though is the story of Pa(r) Snip.

Parsnips do tend to have a bit of a bad press, being second only to Brussels Sprouts in the Distastefulness league table. I can only think this is because people don't know how to cook them well. OK, if you just boil them parsnips do tend to go soggy on the outside before they are properly cooked on the inside (just like Brussels Sprouts!), but there are other ways you know. I particularly like parsnips roasted for serving alongside a roast Chicken or a leg of Pork. If your dietary requirements allow this, a drizzle of Maple Syrup or Honey over the parsnips works a treat. This way they develop a sort of caramel-ey layer on the outside which tends to retain the natural sweetness of the parsnip better. Another good way to use them is to mix them with potatoes and/or celeriac into a mash (particularly good as a topping for Cottage Pie). You can also fry them to make chips.

So what do we know about growing parsnips?

Well, firstly that parsnips are naturally biennial - which means that their lifespan covers two years. During the first year they develop big leaves and store up energy in swollen underground roots. In year two (unless you harvest them before this) the energy stored over Winter in the roots is used to produce more leaves but most importantly a flower-head and the associated seeds. Once the seeds ripen and are scattered, the plant dies. We gardeners therefore cut off the parsnip lifespan at the halfway point. We let the roots develop to a decent size and then dig them up for eating.

Regular readers may remember me sowing my parsnips seeds back in March 2011 (and attracting much derogatory comment for the precision of my rows!). The parsnips I grew this year were "Panache F1". I sowed them in a double row of 2.4 metres (the length of one of my raised beds.)

A point to note with parsnip seed is that it remains viable for less time than most other seeds. It is usually best to use new seed every year to avoid poor germination rates. Also, since the seeds are quite big and light it is easy to position them individually at the spacing you want (but do it on a still day, because they can easily blow away in a breeze).

Last Spring I acquired three "Longrow" cloches and their first task was to protect the newly-sown parsnips and some beetroot sown on the same day.

You can see that four would have been a better number! Unfortunately I was a victim of the usual "Buy two, get one free" offer temptation. I just wish they sold the things individually at a lower price. I'll eventually get one more I think. Interestingly the beetroot sowed without the benefit of cloche protection did significantly less well than those that did have the protection - though to be fair, they were of a different variety.

Later on I thinned the developing parsnips to what I considered a good final spacing. Depending on the variety, I think 10cm between plants is probably about right if you want the roots to get to a decent size. We ate the thinnings, and they were delicious.

During the Summer the parsnips developed some luxuriant foliage, growing to a height of about 50cm. I had to water them quite frequently too, since my soil is pretty sandy.

Allegedly, if you delay harvesting parsnips until after the first frost, they become sweeter. This year our Autumn was very mild and the first frost was very late, and I couldn't wait, so I harvested the first mature parsnips in the first week of October.

Since that time I have been harvesting a couple every week or two. Evidently you are not going to get a huge crop from a 2.4-metre double row, but then one decent-sized parsnip makes an adequate serving for one person, so you may not need a lot.

I was very gratified to be able to serve home-grown parsnips with our Christmas lunch. They wouldn't have won any prizes for good looks, but they tasted very nice.

Now, this is all that remains:

There are probably about another ten or twelve parsnips left, but they will be small ones because they are at the end of the row which is shaded by my so-called Fish tree, whose red berries you can see littered all around. Most of their foliage has died down now (the bright green leaves at the left of the picture are Hamburg Parsley). Actually this brings me onto another point. In most years we get snow in the Winter, and with little foliage to show you where they are, the parsnips may be hard to find when you want them, so it's quite a good idea to put in a few small sticks along the row as markers, before the first snow falls.

Once the big leaves have died down you will notice that a new set begins to grow, in preparation for Year 2:

Looking closely at the part of the bed which I thought I had cleared I can see one or two little green shoots peeking through, so obviously there are a few little "Tiddlers" that I have overlooked...

In about two months' time the whole cycle will begin again. I felt that "Panache F1" was OK but unremarkable, so this year I will be growing a different variety. I have chosen one called "Gladiator F1". It is described in the Thompson and Morgan catalogue as " maturing with consistent high quality flesh, silky-smooth white skin. Very good canker resistance and 'true' sweet parsnip flavour. Parsnip Gladiator F1 is excellent for exhibition."   Sounds good to me. But then how many seed catalogues do you know that say "This variety grows slowly, produces very small yields, looks awful and is very disease-prone" ???  :-)


  1. Your parsnips look really good. This is the first year that I've managed to grow parsnips which are straight rather than something looking like it's escaped from Dr.Who. I've got some parsnips from the allotment roasting at the moment to eat with a roast chicken dinner.

  2. I was late sowing parsnips last year and had mixed success with directly sown ones. Think I'll try protecting with cloches too this time. Varieties I'm going for are Student and Tender &True which also had glowing tributes on the packets!

  3. A good summary of the parsnip life cycle Mark. I think they are a superb veg - as are brussels - and a Sunday roast wouldn't be the same without them!

  4. Interesting post Mark. I agree with parsnips with mash for the cottage pie, something I always do. I also agree with roast parsnips, no chicken or beef roast dinner is complete without them, how can anyone say they don't like parsnips! I'll be growing them for the first time this year, I've chosen 'Tender and True' from Thomson & Morgan.

  5. I have never had any trouble growing parsnips and I love them, particularly roasted with a parmesan coating. Only used half my row so far, I may leave a couple to go to seed as they look very pretty. I have tried various varieties including Tender and True, White Gem and Javelin - this year I am trying Sprintar

  6. What brilliant looking parsnips. Totally agree, parsnips are absolutely delicious par-boiled and roasted in butter until well caramelised with other veg such as potatoes, carrots and pumpkin. They also make the most wonderfully velvety cream soup. Pan-fried Brussel sprouts cooked in a little olive oil with shallots, garlic, cracked black pepper and sea salt are I miss good old British winter veg.

  7. Cheers Mark, some tips I'll be following. Parsnips are a vegetable nemesis of mine, but I think that might be because of my very stony soil.

    I grew some in florist buckets this year. They weren't too bad, but I didn't get many, and they can only get so big in a bucket. will persevere with containers this year though, albeit bigger ones.

  8. Hmm...roasted parsnips drizzled with honey :)

    Enjoyed your post Mark...I haven't attempted growing parsnips here yet. I think I might have quite a while to wait for a frost with todays temperature supposedly reaching 35 degrees celcius!
    I think Andy Murray (playing in the Melbourne Tennis Open today) might melt.

    The Gladiator F1 sounds like you could be on a winner...good luck :D

  9. I need to get some more and try roasting them. Don't think I have room in the garden for any this year but if I end up liking them enough...maybe next year.

  10. Nope. I'm not a fan of the parsnip. Although they're not a very common veg over here and I haven't tried too many. Maybe I'll give a roasted one with honey a go.

  11. All great reading with lovely pics, but when is one of them going to turn into a tiger???

  12. I bloody love parsnips. Wonderful roasted first then in soup. Divine. I need more room in the garden!!!!

  13. I too, am a big fan of the humble parsnip. I love roasting them and if I am feeling decadent, tend to either put a spoon of my chutney in the roasting tray with them or drizzle with a little pomegranate molasses to enhance their sweetness. Must try your maple syrup suggestion now... On the growing front, I have to admit complete and utter failure when I have tried to grow them...

  14. We're still digging our parsnips. We love both them and sprouts. Have you tried cooking parsnips in orange juice?

    It's worth reminding people to be really careful with parsnip sap - if you get sap onto your skin when the sun is shining you can be b=very badly burned and will stay light sensitive for quite a while afterwards so it's always best to wear long sleeves when dealing with parsnips.

  15. A lovely post in honour of the regal Parsnip! I can't understand why people don't like them but then I can eat a whole bowl of Brussels in one sitting so I'm probably a bit weird like that!!! lol x

  16. I still have a few parsnips overwintering in the garden. Going to leave them until spring just to see how they survive the winter. Will try your maple syrup idea.

  17. Watching everyone harvest parsnips all Winter has convinced me to give them a try this year. Thanks for these nice instructions. Wish me luck!


Thank you for taking time to leave me a comment! Please note that Comment Moderation is enabled for older posts.