By: Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez, Plant Scientist & Writer
Parsnips are easiest to harvest and prepare for cooking when they have straight roots. But they often develop forked, twisted, or stunted roots. Read on to discover how to grow straight parsnips using something as simple as a cardboard tube.
Parsnips germinated indoors in typical germination trays are almost guaranteed to have deformed roots. Trays used to germinate other seeds are too shallow for parsnips. When a parsnip seed germinates, it first sends down its deep taproot (single plunging root) and only later sends up a tiny shoot with its first leaves. This means by the time you see the seedling emerge from the soil, its root has already hit the bottom of the tray and begun to coil or fork.
The usual way to deal with this problem is to directly sow parsnip seeds in your garden. Parsnips can also develop forked or deformed roots if they’re grown in hard or clumpy soil, so it’s important to prepare the soil deeply and break up clumps and clods.
However, outdoor sowing introduces the problem of keeping the seeds moist. Parsnip seeds won’t germinate and push above the surface unless you keep them moist until you see the seedlings growing, which often takes 3 weeks or more. It can be difficult to keep the soil constantly moist outdoors for this long, especially if your plot is at a community garden and not in your backyard.
Plus, parsnip seeds often have patchy germination even under good conditions, so you can end up with gaps and uneven spacing in your rows.
Creative gardeners have come up with a perfect solution to this conundrum – growing parsnip seedlings in 6- to 8-inch long (15-20 cm.) cardboard tubes, such as the tubes left over from paper towel rolls. You can also make your own by rolling newspaper into a tube.
Note: Growing parsnips in toilet paper rolls is not an ideal way to prevent them from developing forked roots. Toilet paper tubes are too short and the root can reach the bottom quickly and then fork, either when it touches the bottom of the seed tray or when it hits poorly prepared soil outside the roll.
Place the tubes in a tray and fill them with compost. Since parsnip seeds may have low germination rates, one option is to pre-germinate seeds on moist paper towels, then carefully place the germinated seeds just below the surface of the compost. Another option is to soak seeds overnight, then place 3 or 4 seeds in each tube and thin the extras when they appear.
Transplant the seedlings as soon as the third leaf appears (this is the first “true” leaf that develops after the seed leaves). If you wait longer than this, the root might hit the bottom of the container and begin to fork.
Cardboard tube-grown parsnips can reach up to 17 inches (43 cm.) long, or more. That means you’ll need to provide the seedlings with deeply prepared soil. When you transplant the seedlings, dig holes about 17 to 20 inches (43-50 cm.) deep. Try using a bulb planter to do this. Then, partially fill in the hole with fine soil and place your seedlings, still in their tubes, into the holes with their tops even with the soil surface.
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(Best months for growing Parsnip in Australia - temperate regions)
Best grown in deep sandy, loamy soil. Use fresh seed and soak seed overnight then, after planting, keep seeds moist until seed germinate. Similar to starting carrots, maybe cover with a wooden plank or mulch until seeds germinate. They will completely fail if the seed dries out after planting and it's not unusual to have an entire packet fail. Difficult to grow in summer as the seed dries out fast and won't germinate. Leave in the ground until after frost or at least a couple of weeks of really cold weather. The cold results in the starch in the roots being converted into sugars which give the parsnip its sweet taste. Use a spade to dig the parsnip out of the ground.
Germination rates of parsnip seed are not great so sow about 3 seeds per inch and at a depth of around half an inch. Germination may take up to 20 days. Thin seedlings down so they are about 8cm (4in) apart. If you are planting in rows then space the rows about 50cm (20in) apart.
Peel and roast with vegetables or meat. The sweetish flavour of parsnips enhances most other vegetables.
I have tried to grow parsnips from seed for several years with no success. Parsnips are notoriously difficult to grow. First you must use fresh seed – last year’s seed won’t sprout. Then, even with the freshest seeds, you may have to wait up to six weeks before you see any signs of life. And since they don’t like their feet disturbed, spending hours babying them indoors to get them going is futile since they will protest once transplanted. These vegetables also require a long growing season.
And they’re picky about the temperature, picky about the soil, and picky about the amount of water they get.
I don’t know. Maybe I like the challenge. Or maybe I really like homegrown parsnips. I don’t know. I’ve never been able to get them to grow.
Either way, when a friend told me of this great method of starting parsnips in newspaper cylinders or toilet paper rolls, I was excited to try it! It sounded perfect because you can coddle the seeds and seedlings inside, and then you can transplant them without disturbing them too much because you put the toilet paper roll and all in the ground.
So we saved our toilet paper rolls. Then I bought some parsnip seeds and tried it … and they did very well at first.
I was convinced … I will never be a parsnip farmer.
But I had half a package of seeds left, and I didn’t want to waste them, so I planted them in a garden bed that I had been adding loads of shredded dry leaves to for over a year. The soil was rich and moist. But since I hadn’t been able to get the parsnip seeds growing in perfect conditions indoors, I didn’t have much hope for my outdoor parsnip patch either.
I checked on them every day and kept them well watered, and in a couple of weeks, lo and behold, we had two rows of leeeetle, itty bitty, baby parsnips!
With a fresh does of determination, I watered, pampered, and coddled … and they actually grew! I had an entire bed of healthy parsnips!
Since these vegetables taste better after they’ve been exposed to cold, we are now waiting for wintery weather to sweeten their roots. (No hurry, Old Man Winter. Really.) But we pulled a few today just for the fun of it … and to share our happy success with you : )
This weekend I dug up my remaining parsnips at my allotment, as it is time to prepare the soil ready for my next crop. The parsnips were a variety called ‘Gladiator’.
I must say I have been really pleased with this parsnip crop, as hardly any of them ‘forked’ in the ground and some of them were really quite large. One of them in the above photo was sixteen inches long!
This coming week I will be sowing more parsnip seeds ready for next winter. I will be sowing a variety called ‘Hollow crown’, which I have also grown before. The reason for my choice of variety is….they were cheap.
I have tried various different methods of sowing parsnip seed, each with only limited success….
The few parsnips that actually germinated would always ‘fork’…. until a few years ago I started to sow my seeds into kitchen roll tubes….
The photograph above shows the kitchen roll tubes that I used last year to grow the parsnips that I have just dug up.
I filled the kitchen roll tubes with compost and sowed three seeds in each. I then tied some string around the tubes (just to stop them from falling over) and then kept the tubes on my windowsill in the warm. As soon as the seeds germinated, I moved them outside into my coldframe and then a week later I planted the whole tube into the ground before the parsnip root showed at the bottom of the tube.
This way I now have straight parsnips nearly every time.
I have been asked in the past if this works with toilet rolls but it doesn’t. The parsnip root is quite long by the time you actually see the little seed leaves emerge above the compost and unfortunately if the bottom of parsnip root touches anything hard (e.g. the seed tray at the bottom of the cardboard tube), it will cause the root to ‘fork’, so you won’t have straight roots. However, as the kitchen roll is longer, the tap root has a longer distance to grow before it hits the bottom.
Below is a photograph of a parsnip seedling that I took out of the compost in a kitchen roll, on the first day its seed leaves emerged:
The root is 10cm long already and an average toilet roll is approximately 11cm, so if you use toilet rolls, very quickly the root will hit the bottom of the seed tray which will cause it to ‘fork’, so your parsnip will not be straight.
Last year I planted my seedlings out, just under three weeks after sowing the seeds. You can see from the photograph below, how long the roots were when I planted them out. The shorter tube (which I didn’t plant as I wanted to use it as a comparison), shows where the root reaches down to in the cardboard tube and the longer tube is there to show the length of an average kitchen roll tube, so you can compare the two together. So you can see there is still a small amount of room for the root to grow down.
I must admit it is hard work planting the tubes out as you need deep holes, but the compost in the tubes helps to stop the parsnip from ‘forking’ as the roots won’t hit any stones or lumps in the soil while they grow.
When I plant them I make sure that none of the cardboard tube is above the surface, or this will act like a wick and dry the compost out.
I think the hard work is worth it when you harvest lovely straight parsnips.
What will I do with so many parsnips?
….That’s if I get time in between everything else I need to do this week!
Just one last thing to make you laugh…this is the colour of my hand after I had been peeling and chopping all the parsnips to freeze yesterday and this was after I had washed it! I wonder how long the parsnip stain will last?
Thank you for reading my blog today.
I will be back at my usual time on Friday.
Next year I’ll definitely start my parsnips undercover on heat. Because the high germination rate and the ability to defeat weed pressure is such a big advantage. If I can avoid the root forking problem it has to be worth it. Rather than root trainers, I’m going to try using toilet roll inners so avoiding root disturbance on planting out.
I can’t control the weather but hopefully we’ll have a more normal year and I can get them into the ground in time.