What food says "Spring" for you? For us, it’s parsnips. Beyond a doubt this is the vegetable of choice for welcoming in a new growing season. Parsnips are the only fresh and meaty (unlike greens which we have all winter from the cold frames) veggie to be gotten from the ground so early. They are a treat before fiddleheads and asparagus even think about popping out of the ground.
Springtime parsnips are special. Their mellow, warm, sweet and nutty aroma and flavor act on us like a welcoming mat at a time of year we’re craving an alive plant that can be turned into dinner. We saute them in butter and olive oil and eat them heaped high on the plate. And with a good French wine, they are celebratory.
Parsnip is similar to carrot- a similar shape and white-ish instead of orange, but with a far richer flavor. Growing them is the same as carrots. They need good, deep soil. If the dirt is heavy or not deep the plants tend to develop several short roots instead of one long, straight tap root. They should end up about 3 inches across and 12 inches long.
The variety we’ve been growing is called “Harris Model.” Harris Model goes back aways, and seeds are widely available including through heirloom seed suppliers. Plant the seeds any time in spring. The catalogs say they need 120 days to mature, and this being all of four months is a very long growing season here in Maine. It doesn’t matter because we don’t pull them in fall anyway.
Although they can be harvested after a frost in fall we don’t because there are so many other wonderful things to be had at that time. Parsnips are incredibly cold hardy and keep just fine in the garden all winter. You can even enjoy them in winter if the ground is diggable.
In spring, they can be harvested as soon as the ground thaws. If you are going to eat them they must be pulled up before they begin growing again. After they start growing a hard core develops as the plant begins the process of going to seed.
This going to seed thing suits us just fine. We restrain ourselves from pulling all of the plants. The few left behind will go to seed, with each plant putting out many, many seeds. The self-seeded parsnips start up thickly. It’s important to thin them. Each plant needs a couple of inches around it in order to reach full size.
This is a root vegetable that has no particular storage instructions. Just keep them in the garden and dig when needed anytime from fall until spring. In spring we pick and eat, and pick and eat and never mind saving any. And don’t forget a good wine to go with- a fresh veggie straight from the garden at this time of year is a pleasure worth celebrating. Waiting out winter has its awards! -jmm