♦ Parsnips are not just for roasting but they go a long way to creating a great flavour with other roast vegetables.

Raw parsnips, Pastinaca sativa, from directly above on white background
Parsnips. Copyright: ABImages / 123RF Stock Photo

Parsnips are not to everybodys liking but they are a favourite for roasting especially with a Sunday lunch. One reason why they are not as popularly grown as they should be is the need to sow the freshest seed possible. Germination rates rapidly decline as the seed ages so it’s simply not worth using that old packet in the cabinet.

The parsnip is a common wild plant found in the British Isles and much of northern Europe. The plant is often found in the hedgerows and byways but its roots are certainly considerable smaller than the cultivars which have now been delivered. They belong to the old Umbellifer family but should not be readily picked by those sensitive to their sap. We know that the Pilgrim Fathers took parsnip seed with them on the Mayflower to the east United States.

Parsnips generally are a good source of vitamin C and folate although roasting tends to ruin the vitamins a to a certain extent but the flavour is what is required. They also make a fine soup.

The best way to sow parsnips

Place parsnip seeds on a damp paper as you would to generate sprouts and place inside a Ziplock pouch or bag. Don’t allow the seeds to touch the pouch. It’s a successful way to monitor germination and manage the seeds once they are germinated.

The best time to sow and grow is from February to May.

The seeds will sprout within 10 to 14 days on paper and need to be planted in good soil outside before the young root becomes too long. An alternative is to place a seed in a single deep-celled module usually about 1.5cm (1/2”) deep directly into compost. Use a fine water rose to water the modules or any soil properly. If the seed is sown directly outside, the seedlings appear between 14 and 32 days.

Allow 40cm (16”) between rows.

Early sowings benefit from cloche protection. Thin plants to 20cm (8”) apart.

Growing On

Thin once the seedlings are approximately 1″ high, leaving one plant per 6″ apart. If you are short of space or want to grow smaller parsnips, sow closer together, 20cm apart and thin to about 8cm. Alternatively, selected parsnip varieties can be grown in containers which will produce mini roots.

Replace any dislodged soil and water well until the plants are established.

An evenly moist soil will help prevent splitting so water if the weather is dry and apply a mulch to aid water retention.


Harvesting begins in September, once the foliage begins to die down and continues into the following spring. Roots can be left in the ground in the winter and lifted as necessary. Autumn frosts improve the flavour but you may be wise to lift extra in November before the ground freezes. Lift the roots using a fork, being careful not to damage them. Parsnips can be stored in boxes of moist soil for up to a month, in a cool, dark place. Leave the roots in the ground until they are required. Harvest the roots from October onwards until February.


Parsnip canker is one disease fat can fell even a vegetable which is generally as robust as this is. The fungus Itersomilia pastinaceae can lay waste to a whole filed of parsnips if it gets hold. It is first noticed as sunken, rotten-looking patches on the parsnip shoulders. These might look orange or in more serious cases, purple-black. The unaffected parts can still be eaten but it always leads to significant losses. To reduce the issue, rotate the crops by always grow parsnip on new ground so the disease doesn’t build up. Canker is worst in acidic soils so add lime to raise the pH above 6.5 to reduce acidity. Varieties said to be less prone to canker are ‘Avonresister’, ‘Albion’ and ‘Tender and True’.

Varieties To Grow

Seed is available from Simply Seeds for example.

parsnip-2914269-100x100Parsnip: cv. Duchess. An early maincrop variety with exceptionally white skins. It produces very vigorous heathly foliage and roots with a good shape. Boasting high resistance to canker it is an excellent variety for low-input growing. Can be harvested June to March, depending on sowing time.

 A good alternative to cv. Gladiator. This particular variety is the one that other parsnips are judges against. Especially high yielding with a good colour. The shallow crown reduces wastage.

tender-true-parsnip-2913718-100x100Parsnip: cv. Tender And True. A long-rooted variety of high quality, showing good canker resistance. Long standing, low maintenance crop, and long shelf life.

Also try the heritage variety Student.