If you’ve never tried parsnips, you’re missing out. They have a lovely sweet and mild flavor that is excellent roasted with other root veggies, added to soups and stews, baked as fries, or sauteed.
If you have tried parsnips and love them, you may be wondering how easy they are to grow in the garden.
Well, there’s good news and bad news. Parsnips are a lot more work up front than most other vegetables and can be difficult to get started. But once you do get them going, this root crop is virtually maintenance free until harvest time.
With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about growing parsnips so that you can successfully harvest your crop in the fall.
Everything You Need to Know About Parsnips
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) look a bit like cream-colored carrots. In fact, they belong to the same plant family as carrots, celery, parsley, dill, and several other herbs. Like carrots, parsnips are a root crop and develop a long, fleshy tap root.
Technically a biennial, parsnips are usually grown as an annual vegetable. Their range is wide: USDA hardiness zones 2-9, but they have some specific requirements in order to be grown successfully.
To start with, parsnips need a very long growing season- much longer than other root crops. It depends somewhat on the variety, but most parsnip crops need 100-120 days to mature.
Parsnips are a very underrated vegetable. They are still very popular in countries like England, but aren’t very well known in the U.S.
They also grow best in cool weather, which means they usually need mulched during the hot weather of summer.
Like other root crops, parsnips need well-worked soil in order to grow correctly. The seeds take a while to germinate and need a little tending during that period.
However, once parsnips get established, growing them becomes easy! You can mostly just watch them grow through the rest of the season and dig them up after a frost or two in the fall. They also store well after harvest, lasting for up to 6 months.
Top Parsnip Cultivars
Newer parsnip cultivars have helped to bring this tasty vegetable back into the home garden. Most newer varieties have good disease resistance as well as improved flavor. They range in size from long, thin roots to short, chunkier ones.
Here’s a look at some of the best options:
- ‘Gladiator’– A long, thin variety, ‘Gladiator’ was originally imported from England (where parsnips have almost always been a favorite vegetable). It develops 10-12 inch tap roots with smooth, white skin and a delicious flavor.
- ‘Hollow Crown’– This is a rare heirloom cultivar that grows long and fat, producing roots that can reach as long as 15 inches. The flavor is excellent- nutty and sweet- and even better after a frost or two.
Parsnips come in different sizes. Some are short and stubby, while others are long and thin. All have a bit of character and won’t necessarily look like a picture perfect vegetable, but they taste fantastic.
- ‘Harris Early Model’– As the name suggests, this cultivar is ready for harvest sooner than most, usually in about 90-100 days. It’s a good option for northern growers who tend to have a shorter growing season.
- ‘Cobham Marrow Improved’– This is a medium sized variety that tends toward the thin side and has a high sugar content. It has good disease resistance and produces roots with smooth skin.
- ‘Avonresister’– This is a short and fat cultivar that produces cream-colored roots with smooth skin. Good resistance to canker.
- ‘Tender and True’– This variety produces parsnips that barely have a core and are tender throughout. They also have delicious flavor, store well, and have good disease resistance.
- ‘All American’– Another fast maturing variety, this one will be ready for harvest in as few as 95 days. Roots are creamy and wedge-shaped with an extra sweet flavor.
Planting Information for Parsnips
A key to growing parsnips successfully is planting them in the right place and at the right time. If you do this, you’re already halfway to a good harvest later on.
When to Plant
Parsnips need to go in the ground early in spring, but not when the soil is too cold. Most guides recommend planting 2-3 weeks before your last average frost date in the spring, but it’s really best to go by soil temperature.
In order for parsnips to have enough time to mature, they need to go in the ground as soon as possible. The best time to plant is after the soil has warmed to at least 50°F.
For the best germination, wait until the soil warms to around 50-54°F before planting (but don’t wait much longer). You can measure this easily by getting a soil thermometer.
If you live somewhere with a mild winter climate, you can sow parsnip seeds in fall to grow over the winter.
Where to Plant
Parsnips are a rare vegetable that can take partial shade, but they usually grow much better in full sun (unless you live in a very hot and dry climate).
They prefer well-drained and loose soil with a slightly acidic pH. The ideal pH is from 6.0-6.8, but anything close to neutral (7.0) will be fine.
Because they have long tap roots, growing parsnips in a container garden isn’t ideal. However, if you have very deep pots or grow a short parsnip variety, there’s no reason you can’t give it a try!
Growing Parsnips from Seed
There’s pretty much only one way to grow parsnips: from seed sown directly in the garden. They are a vegetable that doesn’t transplant well at all (much like carrots), so starting seeds indoors is of little use.
This is probably the trickiest part of growing parsnips, but if you carefully follow the right steps, you’ll have little trouble being successful.
One of the most important tips for starting parsnips from seed is that you must use fresh seed. This means seed that is no more than two years old and preferably only one year old or as new as you can get it.
While most vegetable seeds remain viable for years, and you can usually plant from last year’s packet, parsnip seeds quickly lose viability once they approach the one year mark. This is probably the number one reason why gardeners struggle to grow parsnips: their seed is too old.
To ensure your seeds will germinate, buy parsnip seeds from a reputable seller each year. They should be labeled as fresh seed, but if it doesn’t say, ask the company before you buy.
It’s also a good idea to sow more seeds than you’ll need because parsnips can still have a lower than normal germination rate, even with fresh seeds. Even better, sow two rounds of parsnips (about 2-3 weeks apart) in case the first round doesn’t sprout.
Preparing Your Soil
After you’ve selected a good, sunny spot for your parsnips, you’ll need to prepare your soil before planting.
The biggest preparation task is to work the soil 12-15 inches deep, removing weeds, rocks, and debris as you go. The idea is to prepare a garden bed with loose soil so that your parsnips will be able to put their roots straight down.
Just like with carrots, parsnips need loose, rock-free soil in order to grow well. Otherwise, you’ll end up with bent or forked roots that won’t be as easy to cook with.
It’s also important to add compost or well-rotted manure to your bed while you work it. This supplies nutrients to your plants over their long growing season and also improves drainage.
If you have clay or poorly drained soil, you need to amend it before planting parsnips. Make use of raised beds, use lots of compost, or pick another area of your garden that has better drainage.
If you try to grow parsnips in dense or rocky soil, you’ll end up with forked, misshapen, or stunted roots, so don’t skip this step!
How to Sow Parsnip Seeds
Once you have your garden bed prepared, sow your parsnip seeds in rows. The seeds should be planted ½ inch deep and about an inch apart.
Like with carrots and other root crops, it’s easiest to make a long row with a hoe or the tip of a small shovel and then go down the row dropping your seeds in. Don’t worry too much about spacing while sowing parsnips, since you’ll be thinning them later.
It’s a very good idea to mark your rows with a stake or something similar. It takes parsnips a while to germinate, and you don’t want to forget where you planted them.
Because parsnip seeds take a long time to germinate, you can interplant radish seeds in the same row. They will pop up quickly to mark where your parsnips are and can be harvested early.
An old trick is to plant radish seeds in the same row as your parsnip seeds. The radishes germinate quickly, marking your row, and provide shade that helps keep the soil moist for the parsnips to germinate.
You’ll also be able to harvest the radishes long before the parsnips need room to grow.
Water the area where you planted your seeds well, and water it as needed in the coming weeks to keep it from drying out. Just don’t overwater because the seeds will rot in soggy ground.
Parsnip seeds typically germinate in 2-3 weeks but can take up to a month. Be patient and keep the area undisturbed except for watering.
Parsnip Plant Care
Once your parsnips have a few inches of growth, thin them to a spacing of 3-6 inches, depending on how large you want them to be. Do this by snipping unwanted seedlings off at ground level (to avoid disturbing the roots) and putting them on your compost pile.
Caring for your parsnip seedlings is extremely important. They grow slowly at first and can be out-competed by weeds or dried out by a lack of water.
Weed carefully to avoid disturbing the roots of your seedlings, and water enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Avoid getting the leaves wet when you water to help prevent fungal diseases.
Regularly pulling up weeds is important so that they don’t steal water and nutrients from your plants, but do it gently so that you don’t disturb the parsnip roots while they’re growing.
A natural mulch like straw or pine needles can be put down around your growing parsnips when temperatures start getting to 70°F or above. This helps to keep weeds down and also keeps the moisture level of the soil more consistent.
As your plants start to take off and grow, maintenance becomes minimal. You’ll just need to keep up with watering and weeding throughout the season and keep an eye out for pests.
The best way to water root crops, including parsnips, is to give them a thorough soaking about once a week (unless it rains consistently). You want the water to reach deep into the soil- about 10-12 inches. This encourages strong, deep roots and helps to keep them from splitting.
Pests and Problems
One good thing about parsnips is that they are typically pest and disease free.
The most likely pests you’ll see are aphids and carrot rust flies. Aphids chew on the leaves of plants and can usually be controlled by a strong spray from a garden hose or an organic neem spray for bad infestations.
Carrot rust flies are a problem because they lay their eggs around the crown of carrots and related plants like parsnips. When their larvae hatch, they start tunneling into the roots, essentially ruining your crop.
The best way to prevent a carrot fly problem is to practice crop rotation and avoid planting your parsnips anywhere near an area where carrots, celery, dill, parsley, fennel, or celeriac were growing in the last few years.
If you see this critter on your parsnip plants, leave it be. This is the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar that only feeds on certain plants in the carrot family.
How to Harvest Parsnips
Harvesting parsnips is all about patience.
You can start digging them up anytime after they reach about ¾ inch in diameter (or whatever the mature size of your variety should be), but the sweetness and flavor improves greatly if you allow them to stay in the ground through one or two fall frosts.
A good way to approach the situation is to harvest a few as soon as they are ready if you’d like to cook with them, and leave the rest in the ground for later.
Although a few frosts will improve their flavor, you do want to harvest parsnips before the ground freezes and becomes unworkable.
Harvest by carefully digging around your parsnips using a shovel or garden fork to loosen the soil. Once the soil is loose, you should be able to simply pull your parsnips out of the ground and gather them up.
You also have the option of leaving parsnips in the ground over the winter if you miss the harvest window.
Parsnips will be ready to harvest late in the fall, about the same time as other cool weather crops like summer-planted lettuce and broccoli. Letting them grow through a frost or two will sweeten their flavor.
To do this, you’ll need to cover them with a thick layer of mulch and harvest as soon as the soil is workable in the spring. If you leave them in too long, they will become tough, fibrous, and unpalatable.
Note: Wear gloves anytime you handle the foliage of parsnips, including at harvest time. People will occasionally get a rash known as “parsnip burn” if the sap gets on their skin and reacts with UV rays from the sun. Gloves are the best way to avoid this.
To store parsnips, first remove the greens by cutting them off about an inch above the crown. Don’t wash the parsnip roots, but you can brush or wipe off excess dirt with your fingers or a dry rag.
Also, it’s important that you only store undamaged, healthy-looking roots. Any that have been cut or bruised or haven’t reached their full size should be eaten soon after harvesting them.
Whole parsnips can be stored for up to two months in the refrigerator if placed in a perforated plastic bag.
If you have a root cellar, cool basement, or garage that stays in an ideal range of 32-40°F, you can pack parsnips loosely in a box or other container with a medium like sand, sawdust, or even newspapers to keep them separated from one another.
Avoid storing parsnips near ripening fruit, especially apples or pears, and check them often for signs of rot. Stored this way, the roots will last for 4-6 months.
Enjoying Your Parsnip Crop
Now that you know all about growing parsnips successfully in your garden, you can enjoy this wonderful root vegetable practically all winter long.
Try cooking it several different ways to find your favorite method. For example, you can use it as a soup vegetable, mash it for a potato substitute, or try making parsnip fries for a special treat.
And if you want to add some crops to your garden that are a little less maintenance, check out these 17 easiest vegetables to grow at home.