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 "...fast 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" ??? :-)