Last week the organic parsnips above were selling at the food co-op in Frederick for $3.69 per pound. At the website where I bought the seed packet that I successfully planted in 2011, 4g of organic seeds are now selling for $1.99. I harvested more than 7 lbs of parsnips from the seed packet I sowed on 3 square feet in 2011. Thus planting parsnips is a very good deal, if you're a better gardener than I've been... because in 2012 my entire crop flopped.
Parsnip seeds don't last more than a year, so you must buy a fresh packet. If you are as challenged by parsnips as I am, you'll actually use the entire packet trying to get the year's crop going, so no big deal! The seeds can take up to four weeks to germinate. In 2011 I started sowing seeds in mid-May with the intent of harvesting 16 parsnips per square foot. (However, upon doing research for this article I learned that I would probably have been more successful had I sowed at the end of winter, as soon as the soil could be worked and wasn't too wet.) I sowed four times in two week intervals, until I finally saw seedlings come up. Once the seeds managed to germinate, the plants thrived. Ultimately, so many of them came up that I had to thin them. Some of mine were larger than the ones above, pictured on a 14" x 11.5" cutting board.
Parsnip seeds are like carrot seeds, very light, so plant them on well-drained soil on a non windy day as you would carrots. ("Carrot-like" is no coincidence, since parsnip -- Pastinaca sativa -- is a member of the carrot family.) The foliage looks like carrot as well.
Parsnips require at least 6 months to grow. They should be harvested after the first autumn frost, after which they become sweeter. You can harvest them throughout the winter, which enables you to go shopping for free in your garden instead of using cash at the food co-op!
Parsnips get a bad reputation from their European cousin, wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa L.), a weed whose leaves can cause a severe chemical burn. You will find numerous websites that caution you against working on them without gloves. That is not the case with plants that you cultivate from a seed packet.
Parsnips contain starch, and in the past were more popular than potatoes. You can mash parsnips (mix them with potatoes in your favorite mashed potato recipe, or try Mollie Katzen's healthier version). You can roast them (an interesting way to roast is Jamie Oliver's). You can include them in a soup or casserole. I definitely agree with my mother-in-law, that parsnips will improve your chicken soup.
I have no idea why my 2012 crop failed, since I repeated my 2011 steps. My best guess is that the seed I purchased wasn't as fresh, so this year I'll buy a packet from a reputable catalog. I will sow the seeds earlier in the year. I'll also plant a fast crop such as lettuce while I wait for them to germinate, which will have the added benefit of keeping the weeds away.
If you know any parsnip tricks, please share them. I can use your help!