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How to Grow Parsnips

When was the last time you ate a parsnip? Have you ever?

I know. Parsnips are nowhere near as popular as carrots or even beets, but this underrated vegetable is just as nutritious and, in our humble opinion, just as flavorful.

Parsnips aren’t any more difficult to grow than carrots and require hardly any maintenance other than watering and the occasional weeding. Parsnips are the definition of a set-and-forget crop that you can harvest only when needed, well into the winter months. No need to can, freeze, or otherwise preserve your harvest—nature will do all the work for you.

With such sweet flavor and nutritional value coupled with cold hardiness and ease of growing, it’s a wonder parsnips don’t have the cult following that kale does. It’s about time this humble root vegetable gets its day in the sun (or snow).

Even if you didn't grow parsnips in your garden this season, keep reading for some recipe ideas (just in time for Thanksgiving!) and just see if you can’t be convinced to grow parsnips in the garden next year.

What are parsnips?

Parsnips are a root crop in the Apiaceae plant family, a classification that also contains carrots and—you guessed it—parsley. Technically a biennial plant that doesn’t flower until its second year, parsnips are usually grown as annuals: sown and harvested in the same growing season.

Where they grow

Parsnips have a rich history of medicinal and culinary use, first noted in the Mediterranean region and eventually spreading to Eurpe and other parts of the world.

Vigorous growers that adapt well to average soils, parsnips have naturalized in most of North America, and there is little difference between cultivated varieties and “wild parsnips.”

Parsnips aren’t picky plants and while they can essentially be grown anywhere, the root crop is particularly prized by growers in northern climates for their cold hardiness. Parsnips grow best in USDA zones 2-9.

Favorite varieties

Seeds ‘N Such carries two carefully selected parsnip varieties:

Our beefiest parsnip root lacks a woody core, and customers love the sweet flavor that improves after frost. Patience is essential with this variety, as the 15-inch roots take about 115 days to mature.

This heirloom variety is arguably our best-tasting parsnip, and it’s the earliest! Hollow Crown matures in 105 days, ten days earlier than other varieties. The footlong, cream-colored roots are deliciously sweet and have an excellent storage life—whether in the ground or in the fridge.

Growing parsnips from seed

Start parsnip seeds in spring

Since parsnips have such a long growing season, sowing parsnip seeds at the right time is essential to the success of the crop. Parsnips are semi-hardy, so the best time to sow seeds is in the spring—but not until daytime temperatures are consistently around 50 degrees.

Parsnip seeds have the best germination between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit but struggle to sprout above 80 degrees. Once the seedlings have established root systems, they are far better equipped to handle both sub-freezing temperatures and heat waves.

Sowing too early in the spring can cause a delay in germination, but sowing too late won’t give the plants enough time to mature before the plants go dormant in winter. A good rule of thumb is to sow parsnip seeds about two weeks before the last average frost date.

Prepare the soil

Parsnips prefer to be direct-seeded in average (not overly rich) soil. Remove any large rocks in the soil before seeding parsnips and till (or double dig with a broadfork) to loosen the soil down to a depth of eight inches or so.

Direct sow parsnip seeds

In mid-spring, dig shallow (half-inch) furrows about 18 inches apart. Multiseed parsnip seeds along the furrows and rake a thin layer of topsoil over the furrows. If rain is in the forecast, don’t worry about watering—but if not (or if you want to get a jumpstart on growing) gently water the seeds in with a sprinkler or hose.

Grower hack: Sparsely sow radish seeds (French Breakfast or Cherry Belle) with parsnip seeds. The radishes will emerge first, breaking the soil up and marking the row so you don’t lose it. Once the parsnips have sprouted, it’ll be time to harvest the radishes.

Parsnips are slow to germinate so don’t be discouraged if your seeds don’t sprout at first. Summon all the patience you have and give it at least three weeks before you begin worrying. If your Seeds ‘N Such seeds don’t sprout after about a month, reach out to our customer service team.

Thin parsnip seedlings

Once the seedlings have sprouted, thin them to about four inches apart. This will allow space for mature roots to form and will cut down on disease and pest pressure that often results from overcrowded plants. 

Care and maintenance of parsnips

Like carrots, parsnips need a lot of water to produce healthy roots—but too much water and infrequent irrigation can do more damage than good. Consider installing a drip irrigation system or sprinklers on a timer to ensure parsnips get consistent moisture.

Even though weeding is a chore (especially weeding parsnips), you’ll have to stay on top of weeds for the best-looking parsnip roots. Weeds deplete the soil of water and nutrients, two essential things that parsnips need to develop their sweet flavor and crisp texture.

Grower hack: Don’t skip the gloves when weeding or harvesting parsnips. Parsnip leaves and flowers contain a compound that causes a poison ivy-like rash in some people. Minimize direct contact between parsnip foliage and your skin by wearing gloves and long sleeves.

Monitor your parsnip patch for signs of carrot rust fly and cutworm—you can use floating row cover to protect your plants if these insects are particularly rampant in your area. Parsnips may get downy mildew towards the end of the season, but the disease is usually preventable by ensuring there is enough space between plants.

Harvesting and storing parsnip roots

Harvest parsnips after frost

Parsnips typically require well over 100 days to mature, putting the harvest window in late fall and early winter.

Fortunately, there’s no rush to pull the roots before the first frost—harvesting parsnips after a period of freezing temperatures is preferred since parsnip roots become much sweeter when exposed to prolonged temperatures under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dig, don’t pull

Rather than pull parsnip roots out by their tops, dig the roots up with a digging fork or spade to avoid breaking the roots. Shake the dirt off and cut the tops to within an inch of the root. Wait to wash parsnip roots until you’re ready to cook with them.

Parsnips can be harvested at any size, but small to medium-sized roots tend to have the best flavor. Roots that have gotten too large tend to be woody, but smaller parsnips are crisp in texture, even after a hard freeze.

Store in the ground or in the crisper drawer

One of the only vegetables that doesn’t need to be picked before frost, there’s no need to harvest all your parsnips at one time. The best place to store parsnips is in the ground, so only dig what you need for the day or week.

If you do need to store parsnips long term, the starchy roots keep best when stored between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and at least 90% humidity. You can achieve these cold, wet storage conditions by keeping parsnip roots in the crisper section of your refrigerator. Parsnips will keep up to six months this way.

How to cook parsnips

Cook parsnips any way you would prepare other root vegetables like carrots or beets. Parsnips are delicious in more ways than one—roasted, sauteed, and boiled in soups and stews—and you can even boil and mash parsnip roots for a great low-carb alternative to potatoes.

You might be surprised to learn that parsnips have been used throughout history as a sweetener (especially in World War II when sugar was in short supply) so don’t hold back from incorporating parsnip into your holiday pies!

Nutritional content

Parsnips are rich in vitamins and minerals, including potassium and manganese, that help our bodies stay hydrated, maintain muscle health, and even boost our mood by regulating the nervous system. Parsnip roots are also rich in fiber, which is essential to healthy digestion.

You can peel parsnip roots, but most of the vitamins and minerals are found in the skins, so consider cooking the roots whole to get the most nutritional value.

Parsnips are a root vegetable with a rich history. They are easy to grow and don't require much maintenance, and provide a variety of health benefits.

Although not the easiest seeds to germinate, growing parsnips provides a fun challenge and a chance to expand your green thumb and gardening repertoire.

Shop our collection of non-GMO parsnip seeds today so that you can grow and enjoy this underrated vegetable for yourself next year. Buy in bulk for the most savings! 

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