Parsnips are a wonderful crop to grow through the winter in Texas. In fact, cold weather imparts the parsnip root with a sweeter flavor!
Parsnips can be planted in the fall and harvested in early March so that the bed is available again to grow spring vegetables.
Parsnips prefer full sun and rock-free soil that contains some organic compost and is dug to depth of 18”. The addition of organic compost will improve the crop and make the ground more conducive to growing longer and straighter roots.
Plant parsnip seeds in late September or October (before the first frost). Be sure to use parsnip seed that is not more than a year old. Parsnip seeds lose their viability quickly.
Soak parsnip seeds overnight before planting to reduce the amount of time it takes for them to germinate. Germination can take up to 3 to 4 weeks, or longer if the soil temperature has not cooled to their preferred germination temperature.
Plant the seeds 1/2” deep and leave at least 6” between plants and space rows 18” apart. Since my parsnip beds are not very wide and I can reach into them easily; I did not leave a large row space between them, but I do have 2’ walkways around each of the beds.
Be sure to thin the plants because if they are too crowded the roots will be more spindly. Water parsnips as needed during the winter. Parsnips develop better when they have enough water. Harvesting: Parsnip varieties take between 110 to 150 days to mature (this is another reason why it is perfect to grow them during the fall/winter in Texas).
You can begin to harvest parsnips earlier if desired (the roots will just be smaller). Parsnips with harvest-sized roots will usually have leaf stalks between 12” to 15” tall. You can also gently dig around the top of the parsnip root with your finger to see the width of the top of the root. This technique will not disturb the growth of the plant and give you a good idea of how large the root has grown. If the root is about 1.5” to 2” in diameter it is a good size to harvest. If the root is still too small, just push the dirt back over the top and let it grow some more. Very large roots will not have as much flavor as smaller ones.
Use a shovel to harvest parsnips. Place the shovel in the ground at least 4” from the wall of the parsnip and push the shovel straight down into the ground and lift the parsnip root out.
Warning: The leaves and stems of parsnips contain a juice that can cause Phytophotodermatitis in some people. Phytophotodermatitis happens when the sun interacts with the juice on the skin causing a reaction that resembles sunburn spots. These spots can also develop blisters. This is much less of a concern for garden parsnips compared to wild parsnips, but just to be cautious I wear rubber gloves while harvesting parsnips and do not wipe my face or eyes during the process.
In Texas, it would also be a good idea to choose a day or time to harvest when the sun is not as intense or hot. Sometimes I also cut the stalks to about 4” long before I dig the parsnip so that I will not be bending over and crushing the leaves near my face or under my arms as I pull them out of the dirt (just less contact).
Now cut the entire stem off each of your parsnips andwash the dirt off the roots with the water hose. Parsnips can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper for several weeks, or stored up to six months in a root cellar environment. Don’t store parsnip roots with apples, tomatoes or bananas. They produce ethylene that may impart a bitter taste in the roots.
Growing Parsnip Seeds for Next Year
Parsnip roots are no longer edible when the plant begins to send up central shoots that will in turn produce flowers. If you have grown your plants from heirloom seeds and want to grow seed for next year’s crop, then let one of the plants develop flowers and so seeds. The flowers are a lovely yellow and attract butterflies and honey bees.
The flowers will turn into light green seed pods. The seeds are ready to harvest when they turn golden brown and begin to open.
To harvest the seeds, clip the seed heads off with scissors and place them in a paper bag. Shake the seeds out in the bag and then collect them in a paper envelope.
Store your seeds in a cool, dry and dark place until you are ready to use them to plant your next crop.
Cooking with Parsnips
Parsnips make delicious soups. I especially like parsnip soup with curry. Parsnips can also be roasted with other winter vegetables or fried like potatoes.