How to grow parsnips

Val Bourne

Find out how to grow parsnips, when to harvest and which varieties are best.

The parsnip is a delicious, hardy winter vegetable that develops its sweet, nutty flavour when cold temperatures turn the starches in the root to sugar. 

When to plant

Parsnips are slow to germinate and you are much more likely to succeed with growing them if you wait until April before sowing the seeds. Ignore the advice on the packets, which usually recommends February sowing. The temperatures then are too cool and this leads to crop failure. I think this 'February sowing' myth has come about because parsnip seeds take a minimum of 30 days before they appear. So seed companies want you to get seedlings up by March - an impossibility in most years.

Where to plant

Plant parsnips in well-drained, finely-grained soil. If your allotment  or vegetable patch has heavy or stony soil opt for a short-rooted variety. 

How to plant

Using a wide four-inch drill, scatter the parsnip seeds along: this gives the roots plenty of space to develop without thinning out at the seedling stage. Some people recommend station sowing, ie leaving six-inch gaps between clusters of seeds. However, parsnip germination can be patchy, so you often get wide gaps without any roots.

1. Choose a still day because parsnip seeds are very light and papery and they can blow away as you handle them
2. Dig the area deeply and then use a line to mark the row before raking out a wide four-inch drill.
3. Water the drill - this will fix the seeds in position.
4. Sow the seeds to a depth of half of an inch and then lightly cover with soil.
5. Protect with chicken wire to prevent cats and birds from scratching the seeds up.
6. If sowing two rows position them a foot apart (30 cm/12 in)
7. Water the seeds in dry weather and keep the drills weed-free.

When to harvest

The first parsnips are traditionally only lifted after a hard frost. If you do harvest parsnips before a frost, bag them up and keep them in the fridge for two weeks to sweeten the roots. But parsnips are very hardy and they can be left in the ground until April. This makes them well worth growing for winter use, because you dig them as you use them.

Varieties of parsnip

There are traditional varieties and newer hybrids. Today the latter are more popular, although the seeds are more costly to produce.

Parsnips have undergone a change within the last 30 years because there are now F1 hybrid varieties. These are very smooth skinned so they shrug off diseases like canker. They tend to have flat crowns so they don’t get crown rot like some older varieties with dished tops.

'Countess' (hybrid)

'Countess' is a hybrid variety. Good disease resistance - uniform shape. Hybrids germinate more willingly and that alone makes them worth growing.

'Gladiator' (F1)

The original F1 hybrid (bred in 1982 by Tozer Seeds) with smooth, silky skin and large wedge-shaped roots. Canker resistant and widely available

'Archer' (F1)

A newer F1 variety from Tozer Seeds with white, tapering roots and smooth blemish-free skin. Strong germination and a vigorous, uniform grower.

'Excalibur' (F1)

Very white-skinned roots with creamy flesh of sweet flavour. With good tolerance against canker and shallow crowns.

'Javelin' (F1)

The best seller commercially due to its uniform shape. A shorter-rooted variety.

'Dagger' (F1)

A gardener’s favourite due to its high crown, smooth skin and tender roots. Good canker resistance

'Countess' (F1)

White-skinned, conical roots with shallow crowns and an excellent flavour. Ideal used as a maincrop variety for lifting between October through to April.

'Tender and True' (Traditional)

This is a traditional variety. Long roots and a good flavour with good canker resistance. Not as silkily skinned. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.