Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The challenge of parsnips

There is always at least one crop that never seems to be successful people struggle with. For me this is parsnips. In our previous garden on the southern outskirts of Chelmsford in Essex we had very stoney soil which made growing root crops very difficult and I rather gave up on carrots and parsnips. Geological reasons were largely responsible for this.

Let me explain. We had previously lived nearby on lower ground where the soil was the typical clay soil found in much of Essex and the south east. Yet half a mile away up the hill, where we moved to, the soil was full of pebbles. Their origin was that they were river pebbles deposited by the River Thames when its course, during Pleistocene times about 450,000 years ago, was further north compared to today. Then the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine when Britain was still joined to the European continental landmass. The Anglian Glaciation (the furthest southern advance of the three principal ice ages) diverted the course of the Thames further south and a narrow band of river pebble deposits was left behind where eons later our garden was located. This is why I had no success with parsnips.

Where we now live we have sandy, virtually stoneless soil, potentially ideal for root crops. But in the home garden parsnips can still be a challenge. The reason for this is that, firstly, fresh seed is needed as parsnip seeds quickly lose their viability. Secondly, the seed takes several weeks to germinate. As with other root crops starting them off in modules for later planting out is not appropriate as this disturbs the tap root and increases the risk of forking. Several suggestions are proffered in the horticultural texts to 'mark the row' in the relatively lengthy interval between sowing and germination, such as mixing the seed with quick germinating radish. 

But the real difficulty is that unless you have absolutely clean soil, weed seeds get in on the act first and weeds will fill the row well in advance of any sign of the parsnips. Then it is a battle to keep on top of the weeds and at the same time avoiding inadvertently weeding out the emerging parsnips. 

Here is what I did this year in my determination to get a decent crop of parsnips. I waited until well into the warmer climes of April. Then I lined a plastic container with damp kitchen towel and on this sprinkled on a whole packet of parsnip seeds, making sure that they were well spread out and not touching. This was then covered with cling film to maintain a moist environment and placed on a window sill. After about 10 days the seed had uniformly germinated and a small comma of root emerged from each one. At this stage I 'planted' each seed in prepared ground 4" apart being careful not to break off the emerging root. The young parsnip leaves soon appeared above ground so competing weeds were far less of a problem and in addition no thinning was required and no wasted seed. By this time it was into May and the soil and weather had warmed so avoiding any check in growth due to low temperatures. I had the gratifying experience of a complete 20 foot row with no gaps. 

The carrots to the right are
doing quite well too.

Planting out individually each germinated seed was admittedly a little fiddly compared to  sprinkling seed along a row. However, the effort has been rewarded by a more certain outcome. I intend to repeat this method again next year. For now I'm looking forward to harvesting, for once, a decent crop of parsnips later in the year.

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