Having waited for some decent, warmer, growing weather, it seems counter intuitive to be already thinking of next winter. But growing your own food year-round is only realistic if you plan some months in advance. This week I’ve been doing just that, specifically with my parsnips.
These cream-coloured, taper-rooted cold season essentials reach their peak after the first autumnal frosts. Starches in the edible portion turn to sugar. The effect is a sweet-tasting homegrown dinnertime treat. But such earthy pleasures begin now, in spring.
From late February until May, whenever the soil feels pleasantly warm to touch it is also acceptable to germinate the seeds of parsnip. They’re light and disc-like, easily blown from a cradled palm. Thus, a still day is needed for sowing too, lest the plants pop up in scattered, random locations and not straight lines. Neat rows are much easier to tend and nurture with life-giving water and weed annihilating hoe. Later sowings are often smaller but cleaner and less ’woody’ at their central core.
I’d advise selecting a bed of deeply cultivated, weed-free soil which was enriched for the previous crop (such as cabbages). Deep raised beds are also perfect, as long as they are not allowed to become too dry at the bottom. So too un-dug ground which is never stepped upon and kept open by the activities of earthworms and their kin.
Mark out parallel rows 30cm apart with string tied tight between two canes and then, one row at a time and using the string as a guide, makes a 2cm-deep groove in the soil with his finger. This is called a ’drill’, and is made-to-measure to receive the seeds. Next, carefully flood the drill with trickled water from a can and allow it to become absorbed. Seeds are placed along the drill bottom, as near to one every 2cm as you’re able. Brush soil over the top and firm evenly with the back of a rake. This ensures close contact between seed and soil particles, a factor to which successful germination is crucial.
Parsnips are notoriously shy vegetables. Some gardeners mix fast-growing radish seeds with them and sow the duo together. The radishes quickly emerge and guide the home-producer when getting busy with the hoe or watering can. By the time the chunky red fellows are ready to pull and eat, those ’snips will be showing just a pair of delicate, pale green seedling leaves. I often sow three or four parsnip seeds at 10 to 15cm intervals, then keep a watchful eye for signs of merry little clumps cracking the surface. I’ll allow them to jostle and compete until there is a clear favourite, select that as my chosen one and pulls out the rest. All this happens whilst the plants are still tiny and showing maybe one true leaf – which is wider and has a slightly crimped edge. It’s a technique called ’station sowing’ and can be applied to all manner of lovely winter veg.
Parsnips are British natives and have been an important dietary element for thousands of years. Their bulk and goodness has sustained many a working family through times of hardship over the ages. For this reason alone they probably deserve a little more celebration and respect than they get from a population which now relies heavily on introduced, mass produced, heavily chemically dependent potatoes. Roasted, with a dressing of caramelised sugar, parsnips are in a class of their own!
Copyright, Joe Hashman: May 2010