Thursday, March 31, 2022

Growing parsnips in North Florida

Wear gloves to harvest parsnips, because the foliage is toxic.

Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a biennial that is similar to carrots (and is in the same family) where the crop is the tap root. In early fall, I planted the seeds directly into deeply prepared garden soil. I planted my first carrot seeds at that time as well. I just barely covered the seeds with fine soil and watered them and the carrots thoroughly several times a week. The parsnip seeds took a week or so longer to germinate than the carrot seeds. 

I knew that they have a fairly low germination rate and that the seeds don't stay viable until the next season, so I planted the whole seed package in a half row about 24" x 18". I thinned the seedlings once so that there would be adequate room for root expansion. Some gardeners germinate the seeds in between damp or wet paper towels to have more control. Those that germinate can then be transplanted into the garden at just the right distance from each other. Do this early, only a few days after germination, because if you wait too long, you'll disturb their roots, and they may not recover. 

Warning! The shoots and leaves of parsnip must be handled with care, as its sap contains phototoxic chemicals that can cause blisters on the skin when it is exposed to sunlight. Toxicity can also affect livestock and poultry, so wear gloves when weeding, thinning, or harvesting this crop, and then compost the foliage.

This crop is a long-term crop taking up to 180 days to mature and definitely needs at least one hard frost before it's harvested, so the further north you are, the better your chances of success. So, last week after the vernal equinox, I harvested the whole crop. Not that impressive in size considering how long they'd been in the soil. The largest ones were about one inch in diameter and eight inches long. My husband and I ate one raw and it was similar to raw carrots. Most of the crop went into a vegetable soup along with some of my harvested carrots and the parsnips added a nice flavor to the soup. I was going to roast the rest of them because it is a traditional method to prepare them, but the weather was too warm for roasting anything, so they were grated into salads.

Native range and history

The parsnip is native to Eurasia, and it has been grown as a vegetable crop since antiquity, especially in the northern Mediterraean region, but parsnips are not usually a feature of today's Mediterranean cuisine, and I read that most parsnips there are now fed to pigs. This crop plant has escaped cultivation in most of the non-tropical, temperate regions of the world.

The carrot family (Apiaceae) 

Parsnips are members of the carrot family. Most of the carrot family crops are cool-weather crops, so here in Florida, we usually grow them through the winter months. The one exception is culantro, a savory, warm-weather alternative to the cool-weather cilantro. 

List of crops: 
Carrots (Daucus carota
Celery (Apium graveolens
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium
Cilantro and coriander (Coriandrum sativum): the foliage is cilantro, and the seed is coriander. 
Culantro or spiritweed (Eryngium foetidum
Dill (Anethum graveolens
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

Harvested parsnips with the last of the radishes for the season.

I could grow two crop rotations of carrots in the
time it takes for one parsnip harvest.

Are parsnips worth the trouble?

Probably not for me. We're not far enough north and this year we only had two killing frost periods, which may not be enough cold for this crop. Also, the very long growing season means that it ties up space where I could grow almost two cycles of carrots in the same time period. Yes, they were fine and a little bit different and I'm glad I grew them for the experience, but I will probably not do so in the future. 

I hope you're growing more food this year, because every pound of locally grown food offsets up to two pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Green Gardening Matters
Ginny Stibolt

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