A roast dinner isn’t complete without roast parsnips – and they add a whole new dimension to stews and casseroles too. The good news is parsnips are easy to grow, need little maintenance and can be left in the garden until you’re ready to use them. Sow in spring and you’ll have parsnips in the autumn.
Sow thinly or sow three seeds at 15cm (6in) intervals, 13mm (0.5in) deep in rows 30cm (12in) apart.
Although it is sometimes recommended to start sowing in February, this can lead to failure. Sowings made in March and April, and even early May, will often do much better. Warm the soil before sowing with cloches or similar; leave these in place until the seedlings have developed two true leaves.
Enjoy an open, sunny site and are easiest on a deep, light soil. When the seedlings are about 2.5cm (1in) high thin out leaving one seedling 15cm (6in) apart.
Keep the soil weed free, hand weeding close to the roots to avoid damage. Keep the soil evenly moist to avoid roots splitting.
Troubleshooting Growing Problems
Parsnip canker: This orange, brown or purple-coloured rot usually starts at the top of the root. It is mostly caused by drought, over-rich soil or damage to the crown.
Remedy: Sow resistant cultivars such as ‘Avonresister’ and ‘Archer’, improve drainage and avoid damaging the roots. Avoid sowing seeds too early in the year. Protect from carrot fly.
Carrot fly: Carrot fly is a small black-bodied fly whose larvae feed on the roots of carrots. The larvae tunnel into the developing carrots causing them to rot.
Remedy: Once you have an attack of carrot fly, there is nothing you can do to get rid of this pest. Prevention is the best cure, and you should sow thinly and avoid crushing the foliage as you thin out seedlings or hand weed. You can surround your carrots with 60cm (2ft) high barriers made of clear polythene which will exclude the low-flying female flies, or cover the plants with horticultural fleece, such as Enviromesh.
The roots are ready to lift when the foliage starts to die down in late summer or autumn; use a fork to carefully lift them. They can be left in the soil and lifted as required, although lifting a few extra in November will ensure you still have parsnips to eat even if the soil is frozen. Lightly frosted roots tend to produce the best flavour.
Certain vegetables will help to protect your parsnips from pests. Onions and garlic repel aphids, ants, and flea beetles. Parsnips have a tendency to be plagued by root maggots, which will destroy your harvest. Onions and radishes may help, but also try planting your parsnips with wormwood.