Parsnips: the root of perfection

Tom Coward thinks parsnips are the root of perfection.

In the depths of winter, the kitchen garden can often seem quite bleak and empty, but a vast range of vegetables can be cropped in the darkest months. Many, such as leeks, kale, sprouting broccoli, cabbages and Brussels sprouts can be planted quite late, in June, but to get the most out of the ground earlier on, catch crops can be grown in the same ground at the start of the season. Salads and first early potatoes are perfect candidates for this, as they can be harvested prior to the planting of winter crops, making the space as productive as possible.

Yet many of those vegetables intended for winter harvest need to be sown in the spring, to give them a full growing season. Swede, celeriac, carrots and chicory can occupy the ground through the year, but it’s a small sacrifice; these vegetables are harvestable just when the garden seems empty and lifeless.

For me, the ultimate midwinter delicacy is a parsnip, roasted in goose fat and honey; it’s a truly British vegetable, as our friends on the Continent tend to just use them as cattle feed! My friend in Berlin, after developing a taste for parsnips in England, has to dedicate half of his vegetable garden to them as they’re impossible to find in the shops there.

Sowing parsnips
As with many members of the carrot family, parsnip seed doesn’t stay viable for long, so fresh seed must be ordered in each year and any leftovers at the end of the season may as well be thrown away. It can be tempting, in the excitement of spring, to sow quite early, but it’s always better to wait a little, until the ground warms.

Germination of parsnip seed can be a little erratic, so give them the best chance possible: when the soil is ready and warm enough for sowing, the telltale sign is that weed seeds start germinating. We sow parsnip seed into long, half-inch-deep drills, with each row 1ft apart. As the crop grows, we harvest the thinnings to be used as baby vegetables, until the main crop plants are left 6in apart. When thinning parsnips or working around them in the summer, avoid the foliage making contact with the skin. This is especially important during hot, sunny weather as they can cause a phototoxic reaction (rather like that received from handling Euphorbia), resulting in some nasty blisters.

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Parsnips always taste better after several good frosts, as the cold temperatures turn the starches in the root to sugar. Because of this, the ‘baby’ vegetables taken in the summer are always left in the fridge for a week or so to ‘flavour up’, but it’s the main crop that always tastes best. We don’t start harvesting the crop until the foliage has died back for the winter and then we just take a few at a time as they’re needed. Parsnips store best in the ground and only seem to develop their flavour as the winter draws on.

Ornamental value
Although parsnips are grown as annuals, they actually have a biennial life cycle, growing for a season and storing energy in their tasty roots before flowering the next. Many vegetables have beautiful flowers, but those of the parsnip are among the best. Reaching up to 7ft tall, with large umbels of acid-green flowers in June, they’re architectural, to say the least.

Although they need staking, they’re so beautiful that they’re more than worthy of a place in the border. Last year, we lifted a row of roots and planted them through a border in the flower garden among Digitalis Sutton’s Apricot, with very pleasing results. This season, we’re planning to develop the idea, with the addition of lark-spur Sublime Azure Blue and Ammi majus; I can’t wait to see how it works out. Here’s to the humble parsnip: it looks beautiful and tastes even better. I don’t know what more could be asked of a plant.


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