How to Grow Parsnips

Parsnip plants
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Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) look like colorless carrots, but they have their own complex, sweet and spicy, earthy flavor. They are a cool-season root vegetable and technically a biennial (completing their life cycle in two growing seasons) but usually grown as an annual. Parsnip roots stretch around 5 to 10 inches long on average. And the plant produces a rosette of upright green foliage above the ground. Parsnips have a fairly slow growth rate. They’re typically planted in the spring but also can be planted in the fall in some areas. Note that the sap in parsnip plants is technically toxic to people.

Common Name   Parsnip
Botanical Name Pastinaca sativa
Family Apiaceae
Plant Type Biennial, vegetable
Size 1–3 ft. tall, 6–12 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial sun
Soil Type Loamy, moist, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral (6 to 7)
Bloom Time Summer (second year)
Hardiness Zones 2–9 (USDA)
Native Area Europe, Asia
Toxicity Toxic to people

How to Plant Parsnips

When to Plant

Parsnips grow well in most regions, though they require a long growing season and have the best flavor when they can be grown during relatively cool months. It can take from 120 to 180 days for parsnips to go from seed to harvest. So in some regions they are grown as a winter crop, planted in the middle of the fall and harvested in late winter or early spring. However, in cold regions where the ground freezes solid, parsnips are planted in the early spring as soon as the ground can be worked and harvested the following fall.

Selecting a Planting Site

Select a planting site with loose, well-draining soil. Make sure it’s free of rocks that can inhibit root growth, as well as weeds that can compete for nutrients and moisture. Container growth is an option, though it is not recommended as it does not provide optimal conditions for the roots to develop.

Spacing, Depth, and Support

Sow the seeds around 1/2 inch deep. Add roughly two to three seeds per inch in rows that are 1.5 to 2 feet apart. Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, thin them to around 3 to 6 inches apart. When thinning, cut off the plants at ground level rather than pulling them to avoid disturbing the surrounding plants. A support structure won't be necessary.

Parsnip Plant Care

Light

Parsnips prefer to grow in full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days. However, they can tolerate some shade.

Soil

Ideal soil conditions are deep, rich, and loamy with sharp drainage. Parsnips prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH. Thoroughly loosening the soil roughly a foot down prior to planting will ensure good root growth.

Water

Regular moisture encourages strong and consistent root growth. Around 1 inch of water per week should do. Water slowly and deeply. Frequent, shallow watering can result in weak roots. However, make sure the plants are never sitting in waterlogged soil. 

Temperature and Humidity

Parsnips grow best in average temperatures between 45 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They will tolerate freezing temperatures at both the beginning and end of the growing season. Parsnips have no preference when it comes to air humidity.

Fertilizer

Mix a few inches of compost into the soil at the time of planting. Then, side-dress with some compost at midseason. 

Pollination

Parsnip plants are pollinated both by insects and the wind.

parsnips on a cloth

Duckycards / Getty Images

Types of Parsnips

There are several varieties of parsnips, including:

  • 'All American' is very sweet and fine-grained with a small core.
  • 'Hollow Crown' has a mild honey flavor and uniform roots with few side roots.
  • 'Harris Model' appears early in the season and has tender flesh.
  • 'The Student' has large roots with a mild nutty flavor, and it requires a long growing season of about 180 days.
  • Gladiator’ is a canker-resistant variety that produces very thick roots.

Parsnips vs. Carrots

Parsnips and carrots are relatives. They are both grown for their edible roots, which are similar in appearance and texture. However, parsnips are typically white while carrots are orange (though they also can come in white, purple, and other colors). Flavor is the main difference between the root vegetables. Parsnips are somewhat spicy while carrots are sweeter. 

Harvesting Parsnips

Parsnip varieties mature at different times. When the roots are at least an inch in diameter it’s time to harvest. When harvesting in the fall, it’s best to allow your parsnips to be exposed to a few frosts. This creates a sweeter flavor. However, be sure to harvest before the ground freezes. 

To ensure you get the whole root, loosen the soil with a fork before harvesting. Then, gently ease the roots out of the soil. Cut off all but a few inches of foliage. Parsnips can be stored in root cellar conditions between 32 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity between 90 and 95%. Keep them in damp sand or sawdust, and they should last for four to six months. 

How to Grow Parsnips in Pots

If you don’t have the garden space for parsnips, you can try container growth. But you will need a very large container for the best root growth—ideally something at least 15 inches deep. The container also must have drainage holes. Unglazed clay is a good material, as it will allow excess soil moisture to escape through its walls. A fabric grow bag is also an option to make the whole container lighter to move if necessary.

Pruning

No pruning will typically be necessary when growing parsnips. But remove any damaged stems as they arise to avoid them introducing any pests or diseases to the plant.

Propagating Parsnips

Parsnips are typically grown from seed. And you can actually propagate your own plants by allowing some to go to seed in their second year. Here’s how to save seed:

  1. In the late summer, cut the mature seed heads off the plant. Place them in a single layer in a warm, dry spot with good air circulation to dry completely. 
  2. Once the seed heads are dry, break them open and separate out the seeds.
  3. Store the seeds in an airtight container. They are best planted within a year, as germination will decrease as they age.

How to Grow Parsnips From Seed

Use as fresh of seed as possible when planting parsnips. Parsnip seeds germinate best in soil that’s between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. They can take between two and three weeks to germinate. You can expedite germination by placing your seeds between wet paper towels in a warm spot prior to planting them outside. Allow little roots to develop on the seeds, and then sow them in the garden.

Potting and Repotting Parsnips

Use an organically rich, loose, well-draining potting mix for growing parsnips in containers. Also, only add one plant per container to avoid crowding the roots. Aim to use a container that will accommodate the plant's mature size right from the start, so you don't disturb root growth with repotting.

Overwintering

You can leave your parsnips in the ground to harvest throughout winter (if the soil is not frozen) and into the early spring. Add a thick layer of mulch to help protect them from freezing soil. They will sweeten toward the spring, as the plants get ready to begin growing again. However, once the tops resprout, the flavor will start to go downhill and the roots will get tough and fibrous.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

A few pests commonly bother parsnip plants, including aphids, leaf miners, and carrot flies. Avoid planting your parsnips where carrots or celery have recently been to help prevent the spread of shared pests. Moreover, canker is a disease that causes dark patches on parsnip roots. It mostly affects injured roots. If canker is a problem, choose resistant varieties of parsnip.

FAQ
  • Are parsnips easy to grow?

    Parsnips are fairly easy to grow as long as you have cool weather and loose, deep soil.

  • How long does it take to grow parsnips?

    Parsnips can take around 120 to 180 days from planting to harvesting.

  • Do parsnips come back every year?

    Parsnips do technically complete their life cycle in two growing seasons; however, most people harvest them during their first growing season.

Article Sources
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  1. Pastinaca Sativa (Parsnip, Parsnips, Wild Parsnip, Wild Parsnips) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/pastinaca-sativa/.