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Ask a Master Gardener: Challenge yourself with growing parsnips

by Peter Sutter | December 4, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

A couple of weeks ago, I included a recipe venison vegetable soup in my article, and the recipe had a parsnip in it. Well, I had to buy that parsnip, and it has been on my mind ever since. I had been growing parsnips for several but failed to do so this year, so I am going to put parsnips on my garden shopping list for next year's garden. Speaking of the garden list, I have already received a several seed catalogs. I am not complaining, but that always causes my list to grow rapidly.

Anyway, back to those parsnips. I remember attempting to grow them years ago without really good success, so a few years ago, I did a little research and they did a lot better. It's amazing how much a little knowledge will help a person.

The first thing I found out was parsnip seeds need to be fresh, no digging them out of the back of the drawer. Most vegetable seeds can be kept for a couple of years, which is good when you only need a small portion from each packet. Parsnip seeds are not in that category. The No. 1 thing with parsnips is the fresher the seeds the better. This means fresh seeds have to be bought every spring to sow immediately. This is probably the main reason why so many fail but one that's so easy to remedy.

Another interesting thing I found out is that it is better to wait a little later to plant parsnip seeds. Most seed companies recommend sowing early in the season when the ground simply isn't warm enough. Parsnip seeds need a minimum of 46 degrees to germinate, but even at this temperature they are liable to rot before they've had a chance to sprout. It is far better to wait until soil temperatures have reached about 55 degrees or higher. So don't rush into sowing as there's nothing to be gained from a few weeks' "head start" and everything to be lost.

Here is the next obstacle: They take a long time to germinate, sometimes up to a month. It can be tough staring at an empty patch of ground when everything else on the plot is up and growing within days, but you must be patient! To mark your row -- and at least see something growing there -- you can plant some radish seed sparsely down the row. This will mark the row and keep it from crusting over.

If you don't have the patience or don't trust the source of your parsnip seeds, there is another trick. Try putting the seeds between two folds of damp paper towels and place them in a sealed plastic container. Keep the seeds somewhere warm and little white roots will soon appear. You can then sow the pre-germinated seeds as above, discarding any that have failed to sprout.

Parsnips are certainly vigorous once they're established, so if you can get past the "startup" stage, things will go smoother. They are a long season crop, taking about 100-120 days to mature. And if you can wait until after a frost or two, they are even better.

Although parsnips sound a little tough to grow, every gardener needs a challenge every now and then. I hope you will take this one on.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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