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Getting Parsnips to Germinate

In other Places I've seen that Parsnip germination is unreliable & can be a problem  Confused  - Since they are traditional British winter Veg, I'm giving the secrets away here so you can all do it if you want to  Smile

(Part of the “Self Sufficiency Series)

Roast parsnip with Sunday lunch is (to me) probably the most desirable part. I do not like the tiny little “Baby” ones, because they are tasteless and go hard in the roasting dish and although others say the centres of the big ones can be “woody”, they don’t seem to bother me. Sometimes I think these statements are produced by people with a vested interest or just regurgitated by writers who have read them in books. For example I have recently been to Tesco where there were presented, small plastic containers of potatoes. These seemed to me to be just like any other potatoes if a bit small, but were presented as “baby baking potatoes” at a premium price. I can’t tell you whether they had any other merits as I didn’t buy them.

In the first year, I knew nothing of gardening at all but had now completed my TV and Video repair course and had asked my partner to rent me an allotment for my Christmas present. With great enthusiasm, I had bought an old book from a car boot sale (by Percy Thrower, whom I would still recommend to this day) and started to dig. It was so full of perennial weeds that sometimes I spent a whole day, just to make a yard (a little less than a metre for our younger readers) of progress but I kept at it, every day, and by early June it was all done.

As I went, I planted, whatever the packet said was in season and kept digging Parsnips being early, went in fairly close to the front. I weeded regularly and was very cautious in the parsnip rows, as I had no idea what the leaves would look like when they came up. After some weeks, I got to know some of the other regulars and seeing no sign of any parsnip growth, started to ask them if theirs were up yet.

Everyone said that they took a long time and very unreliable. Some said that they often didn’t grow at all and they planted again later in the season, when they got more success but not a lot and because of the late planting only got small parsnips. (Remember my theory about why the big ones were supposed to be “woody”). Anyway, a few grew and were duly eaten, but my rows looked terrible, with only a handfull in each and big gaps. I did buy another packet of seed and do a later sowing, this time watering the bottoms of the drills before I sowed, as the ground was now getting dry. A few more grew than before, but still not many and duly were harvested as pathetic little things.

My first thought when considering what could be done to rectify the situation, was that the seed was in some way defective but we all seemed to be having the same problem and we weren’t all using the same seed. So perhaps the germinating conditions were wrong? My first thought was to sow indoors and transplant them, but the books all said you couldn’t do this because they had very long tap roots which got broken so they didn’t grow properly.

Now that I knew what the leaves looked like, I spotted a couple going to seed on an allotment abandoned by an unknown previous tenant. This year I would harvest some of these, and store them in a plastic bag in my shed, in case the warm, dry atmosphere in the shops and warehouses had some detrimental effect on them.

As soon as the seed started to drop, I collected quite a large amount and did as I had intended.

In late winter I noticed that around these mother plants were literally thousands of tiny little parsnip plants. It looked as though every single seed had germinated, so nature knew something the rest of us didn’t. Maybe autumn sowing was the secret, it certainly worked for these little ones. I was so jealous!

I thought again about transplanting and it’s supposed problem (breaking the tap root) and decided, that if I could take enough undisturbed soil with them I wouldn’t be transplanting, just moving them.

Obtaining a bulb planter (like a bottomless metal plant pot on a handle with a mechanism to release the plug of soil enclosed) I set up a string line in newly cultivated ground and removed a plug of soil. Then going over to the baby plants which were only about an inch (2.5cm) tall  
I took a plug with a good looking seedling in the middle and used it to replace the one in my own allotment. I was convinced that there was no way the tap root could be longer than the plug as the plantlets were so small. Fairly optimistic I did three rows like this planting about eight inches (20cm) one way and a foot (30cm) between rows.

Without fail I plant root veg including potatoes as close as I dare, so the leaves close over and I don’t have to weed after the first few weeks. This way, you get no weeds, more harvest (at least I have never noticed a reduction in quality) and better moisture retention as the sun doesn’t dry between the rows.

I waited a few days and the little plants didn’t die or get up and run away, they seemed fine, so I took out the spares (most of the plugs had several plantlets in them).

They grew much better than the seeds I had stored, which in turn were better than the previous year, having the advantages that they were already showing, so weeds could be taken out earlier without fear of decapitating an emerging infant. There were no gaps and the “neighbours” were very impressed at my regimental uniform rows, especially when compared with their own efforts.

Copious watering in dry weather is my rule. If you can’t be bothered or cannot get access to water or store it in some way, then pray for a wet summer. I am afraid that keeping plants growing any other way is beyond my skill though I would be pleased to hear any suggestions.

Later in the year I scraped away a little soil from some of the crowns and found to my delight the tops of the roots were of a very good size.

I seem to remember digging the first one, with much trepidation about bonfire night. I simply could not believe my eyes. This wonderful thing was nearly a foot long. There was no long tapering root at the bottom and it looked more like a swede than a parsnip, over four inches (10cm) thick. With a taper, but not much, we clearly only needed one to feed the two of us and four kids, but I dug another anyway, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t, although it was one of the larger ones.

We ate one a week for the whole of the winter and gave one a week to my parents. Yes they had centres, but plenty of outside flesh too and I never had any problem with the fact that the centres did have a slightly different texture. They were flavoursome and very edible. Try them for yourself and make your own decision.

In the spring, when they started to shoot, (they go to seed in the second year, as do most root vegetables) I left two in the ground for next years seedlings – two because I am not entirely sure whether they are self-fertile and in case of accidents. The rest had their shoots removed and were buried on their sides in a pit, with about a foot of soil covering them. When they were just too old and I could no longer stop them sprouting, about May, the survivors were used to make wine. Excellent and strong, but needs to be made sweeter, rather than dry.

The next year, I had no source of seedlings, so I planted seeds in paper pots indoors, after Christmas. (They should be covered with cardboard or something else to excude the light until half had germinated, then kept in the light). They were through remarkably quickly and were transplanted with their pots. The results were fine. Big stumpy parsnips, even with shop bought seed.
In conclusion then, If I were starting to grow parsnips now, I would plant seed indoors in paper pots, sometime in January, or later if I hadn’t already done it. As soon as possible after germination, I would put them outside in the daytime and bring them in at night for a few days (perhaps a week) to harden them off a bit, then plant them in prepared seedbeds.

The next year, I would repeat the process and leave two of my own to go to seed.

When these were dropping seed, If I really wanted traditional shaped parsnips in year 3, I would immediately sow the seed from these mature plants in very shallow drills, where I wanted them to grow and thin them in the spring. I would try half the drills with the seeds left on the surface (as the self- sets were) and the others with a very light covering.

Personally I would continue with the self sets, as they are easier to keep weed free, grow exactly where you want and make excellent table specimens. (I don’t even know if you can show parsnips on their own). For me the challenge is over.

Happy growing


Great post Don, thanks!

Just as you mention, the parsnips I've tried to grow have never seemed to germinate  Confused I'll definately be planting some indoors now though. I reckon the conservatory's the very place for them! I can even manage to get pepper seeds to germinate without fail in there, so I should think with enough warmth & moisture I might get seedlings ready to go outside for a crop this year?

What is this parsnips for parliament???

I quite like them roasted though Laughing

Calli wrote:
What is this parsnips for parliament???

Heathen  Rolling Eyes

They'd probably be just as good as the turnips we've already got there though  Laughing

Just be careful woman - or I'll tell you about carrots  Shocked  Twisted Evil

- Just don't forget to leave a couple in to go to seed Q -  Wink

donthre wrote:

Just be careful woman - or I'll tell you about carrots  Shocked  Twisted Evil

ooh yes carrots - now I can see the point of carrrots

I am digging over a patch today for fencing off from marauding chickens and horses....

decisions decisions Cool

Hmmm  Confused

Masochist "Whip me, whip me" Very Happy

Sadist "no"  Twisted Evil

I'm gonna have to think about that then   Shocked

Laughing  Laughing  Cool

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