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Growing Parsnips, Carrot’s Paler Cousin

Bring comfort to winter meals by growing parsnips this winter. Simply roasted on a tray, mashed into a puree, blended into a soup, or even pickled, parsnip’s nutty but sweet flavor offers a hearty addition to the holiday table. This long-lasting root vegetable is a great source of fresh produce during colder seasons.

Before sugar cane was around, parsnips were used as a sweetener! More unusual uses of parsnips include the UK’s predilection for making parsnip wine, and as a substitute for pancetta. Parsnips pair well with flavors like nutmeg or citrus and can be used in place of carrots or potatoes.

Grow these root vegetables in your vegetable garden for winter harvests. Parsnips are a long-lasting source of cold-weather food, sweetened by frosts, and will keep well for winter food storage, even in the ground!  Let’s take a look at how to grow and harvest this much-loved crop.

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Quick Care Guide

Growing parsnips
Growing parsnips can be a great way to change up your root veggie rut. Source: anneinchicago
Common Name(s)Parsnip, wild parsnip
Scientific NamePastinaca sativa
Days to Harvest100-120 days
LightFull sun to partial shade
WaterKeep the soil consistently moist
SoilLight, fine soil, no compacted clay, well-draining
FertilizerOne mid-season application of low-nitrogen fertilizer
PestsCarrot flies, aphids, root-knot nematodes
DiseasesParsnip canker, alternaria leaf blight

All About Parsnips

Parsnip leaves
Parsnip leaves form in pairs along each stem. Source: wburris

Pastinaca sativa, or parsnip as it is commonly known, originated in the Mediterranean. Parsnips grow wild in Europe and in the USA, where the wild plants can cause burns. Even the green parsley-looking foliage in the cultivated variety is inedible. For some people, the parsnip can create a rash when also exposed to sunlight, due to the toxic sap the greens contain.

Parsnips look like carrots but are usually cream-colored, and larger and fatter than their cousins. The foliage resembles celery foliage and forms a rosette shape at the top of the plant. Parsnips are a taproot and the vegetable portion is typically around 5-10” wide. If left to flower, they will produce yellow, umbel-shaped flowers.

Parsnips become sweeter when left in the ground past a frost or two. It can be planted in spring or summer for a winter harvest. Even though parsnips are technically a biennial and in some climates a perennial, they are typically grown as an annual winter crop, harvested the first year since the flavor will diminish in the second year. This taproot is packed with nutrients, including high levels of potassium.

Planting Parsnips

Plant seeds into your garden from late spring to late summer for harvest in the fall to early spring of the following year. In warmer climates, sow parsnips in the fall to harvest in early spring. Make sure the parsnip seeds are fresh and are planted ½ inch deep. It is important to have good soil coverage over the seeds. Older seeds will not germinate and parsnip seeds go bad quickly.

For optimal seed germination and healthy seedlings, it is important that the ground is not colder than 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Add a cover over the garden to assist in germination.

When planting parsnips into your vegetable garden, consider planting shallow-rooted plants like radishes or violas in between the rows for the best use of space. Grow parsnips in an open space with full sun. Parsnip seedlings prefer a sunny spot but can also handle part shade.

Parsnip roots are delicate, so plant the seeds directly into the ground instead of starting them in pots and then planting outside. Parsnips prefer well-worked, loamy soil. Sow the seeds ½ inch deep and 6 inches apart into warm, moist, weed-free soil. Sow three seeds per planting to ensure germination. After 3 weeks, the parsnip seed will germinate. Thin out seedlings at 6 weeks and make sure each plant is spaced correctly.

If planting parsnips in a container, it needs to have a depth of at least 12 inches to ensure healthy plants. The parsnip roots need to be able to grow straight down. These should be spaced 6 inches apart to make the best use of the container. After 6 weeks, thin out the seedlings to 6 inches spacing for good airflow. Growing this plant in a container allows you to have more control over the soil and create the loose, well-dug soil that parsnip plants thrive in. 

Care

Parsnips with damaged tips
When harvesting parsnips, be careful not to damage their root tips. Source: Bruno Girin

Parsnips are not difficult to grow but pay attention to a few particulars of this root vegetable as it can be picky about too much nitrogen and its moisture levels. You will have the best success direct sowing the seed outdoors in garden beds and interplanting it and keeping the bed weed-free. Patience is a virtue here. After you wait, the rewards are great for this long-season crop!

Sun and Temperature

Grow parsnips in full sun to partial shade. The seeds should be planted into warm soil in USDA growing zones 2-9. The long growing season actually helps to ensure good flavor in these vegetables. If you leave the parsnips growing in the garden for a few touches of frost, it will turn the starches into sugar and sweeten the vegetable. 

Water and Humidity

One of the most important aspects of caring for this cold-hardy root vegetable is keeping the moisture levels consistent. These plants prefer to be watered deeply as it assists the roots in reaching deep into the soil. Parsnips are not drought tolerant. If the plants are not watered enough the roots become tough. Water the parsnips deeply and consistently for the first 4-6 weeks and then continue to keep them evenly moist throughout the growing season. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation can help. Mulching will keep moisture levels even.

Soil

Parsnips prefer loamy, well-prepared, loose soil which makes it easy for their roots to reach down. The PH should be between 6-8. Well draining soil is the priority here and if the soil is too rich, it can cause problems. Create rows of well-sifted and fine compost mixed with sand and keep the seeds well covered with at least ½ inch of soil. If you have clay-type soil, make certain to work a lot of compost through it so that it doesn’t become compacted, as parsnips will struggle with root development in clay.

Fertilizing

Parsnips can grow in poor soil and do not need to be fertilized, as too much nitrogen can cause overgrowth at the top and not enough growth in the roots. Vigorous top growth can also make the plant susceptible to disease. Phosphorous is the most essential nutrient due to its contribution to healthy root development. Side dress parsnip rows with a 1-2-2 fertilizer halfway through their growing season. 

Propagation

Sow parsnips into the garden from late spring to late summer, for harvest in fall to early spring of the following year. Make sure the parsnip seeds are fresh and the ground is warm. Older seeds will not germinate, and parsnip seeds will lose viability quickly, so purchase fresh seed every year.

It’s best to direct sow your parsnips. No other propagation methods are viable.

Harvesting and Storing

Freshly harvested parsnips
Wash parsnips just before using. Source: Simon Wheatley

With all the hard work put into growing your crop, you need to harvest parsnips correctly and store them carefully. By following these expert tips, you will have a fresh supply of parsnips for winter meals even as frost covers your garden.

Harvesting

Parsnips are ready to harvest after 120 days. For a sweeter flavor, let the parsnips sit in the ground for a hard frost or two, as it turns the starch to sugar. When the greens begin dying back, the parsnips are ready to harvest. Keep parsnips in the garden with a mulch over the plant and harvest as needed throughout the winter and as late as early spring. Harvest your crop before early spring as the parsnip roots become tough over time.

Wear gloves and remove any lingering foliage before harvesting. When removing the parsnips from the garden, do so carefully, as any damage to the roots can make storing impossible. Begin by carefully removing the soil around parsnip roots with a shovel or hoe. Again, be careful not to damage the roots. At this point, carefully push down on the parsnip and then try to pull it from the ground. You may need to do some additional digging around the roots. Dust off any dirt with a brush and then wash in cold water. Dry the parsnips. Leave the skin on, as it enhances the flavor. 

Storing

Store parsnips in a cool, dark place like a root cellar, garage, or basement, in a container of sand that covers the vegetables entirely. Remove all greens before you bury them in the sand. Store the parsnips this way for up to 4 months.

Freezer storage is also an option. Treat parsnips as if they were carrots to prepare them for freezing. They also dehydrate or freeze-dry well for later addition into soups or stews.

Troubleshooting

Forked parsnips
Many environmental conditions can cause parsnips to fork. Source: Marj Joly

Prevent problems with parsnips by giving them proper air circulation, controlling moisture, and using good quality parsnips seeds. Paying attention to these details will keep your garden bed of parsnips thriving!

Growing Problems

Too much nitrogen can cause overgrowth in the foliage and not enough growth in the root. 

If parsnips are not spaced properly at about 6 inches apart, it can cause airflow issues and damage when harvesting the parsnips. Roots could become tough if they do not have enough space to develop. 

Soil that is not sandy and loose will bind up the roots, causing them to develop improperly and to twist, fork, or bend. Similarly, excessively fertilized soil could cause parsnips to fork.

Pests

The carrot fly lays eggs at the top of the parsnips, and their larvae eat the roots. Take preventative measures to avoid an infestation. Cover the garden bed with netting and make sure to thin the plants properly. Companion planting with chives or other alliums will help deter pests. Alliums have a low root system which will pair nicely with the parsnips, and they have a smell that deters the carrot flies. Do not grow parsnips near carrots, and be sure to rotate parsnip crops to different garden beds each year. Sowing parsnips later in cooler climates can also help avoid flies, as can the use of a floating row cover. Sticky traps may catch adult flies. Beneficial nematodes can eliminate the larvae.

Aphids are ever-present pests on green leafy material, and parsnips are no exception. These sap-suckers will wreak havoc on the leaves of your root crops. Neem oil or insecticidal soap will handle these, as will a strong blast of water.

Root-knot nematodes are among the worst pests of all root veggies. These microscopic nematodes cause knots and warped roots to develop that restrict water flow through the root system. Beneficial nematodes should be applied to the soil, as they will search out the damaging nematodes and eat them. Apply the first time as directed, wait two weeks, and do a second application with a new batch of beneficial nematodes. This wait-and-apply-again technique will help beneficial nematodes to build their population and to continue surviving in the soil.

Diseases

Parsnip canker is common in cool, moist conditions. Caused by multiple different forms of fungi, particularly Itersonilia perplexans or Fusarium spp. in the United States, it causes black, purplish or even orange rot to form on roots. There are no fungicidal treatments that are effective against these cankers at this time. Plant resistant varieties, and avoid root damage caused by nematodes or fly larvae that can cause parsnips to be more susceptible to canker. Remove roots that are damaged and destroy them. Do not compost cankered crops.

A form of alternaria leaf blight (Alternaria dauci) causes browned leaf edges that look like the leaves have been burned. Damaged leaves will fall off easily. This disease does not impact the root and can be treated with copper-based fungicidal sprays.

Frequently Asked Questions

Parsnip plants
A cluster of parsnip plants. Source: cah44

Q: What month do you plant parsnips?

A: Spring through late summer. Plant parsnip seed in warm soil. 

Q: How long do parsnips take to grow?

A: It takes time for this plant to develop, with the harvest being 120 days after sowing.

Q: Are parsnips easy to grow?

A: Parsnips need to have moist soil, plenty of sun, and be spaced out properly. If you follow these rules, you should have a healthy crop!

Q: Where do parsnips grow best?

A: Parsnips should be sowed in warm soil in the late spring or summer in an open, sunny space.  They enjoy cool climates, and frost makes them taste sweeter. Grow in USDA Zones 2-9.