Parsnip Caring

What a summer it has been! If you read a past tense here, it’s not entirely unintentional: June and July’s heatwaves have condensed into an August that feels autumnal. Top volunteer, Terry, reckons its due to the latest large mass of ice in the Arctic melting, pushing warm air back to the Med. It’s common to hear such global interconnectedness termed “the butterfly effect”, but this term makes me a bit jumpy as at Hawkwood we are right now killing off many a moth and butterfly in the first stage of their life – caterpillars – as they’ve overtaken aphids to claim Pest No. 1 spot in the glasshouse.

The seasons have I suppose always been as much about archetypes as chronological facts. Climate change, the ultimate unlearnt lesson in the interconnectedness of all things, only makes this truth more so. But growing wise, these are great times we’re living in. The year has delivered us light, warmth and moisture in regular rhythmic updates, and the plants have done the rest. The fan-trained peaches have just been relieved of the fruit – two hundred or so per tree, thirty-five or so per branch – that has been almost a painful burden on them these last weeks; whilst those superpowers of the glasshouse, the tomatoes, decorate the place relentlessly in gaudy hot colours; and it all tastes great. Most of the year is spent recalling these days of bright, overexciting abundance as if some delirious utopian dream.

“A map of the world that doesn’t include utopia or parsnips isn’t worth glancing at”, quipped Oscar Wilde, although in the final draft I believe he left out the bit about parsnips. Whilst the whole world has embraced the lovable, huggable potato, it seems a peculiarly British thing to regard parsnips as their consistent counterparts in the roasting dish. Their sweet crunch more readily recalls special times: Sunday lunches and Christmas dinners, than the omnipresent, workaday spud. The sweetness is famously enhanced by ground frosts, so you can always tell a true parsnip fancier by the twinkle on their tongue the morning after the first frost of winter. But that first frost is something many of the world’s veg growers cannot even hope for, let alone rely on.

There are further reasons why parsnips have not spread their pale roots across the world food map. They are notoriously tricky blighters to grow, which is an unwise move if you’re trying to convince a load of slightly harassed peasants and gardeners to grow you. I mean, we all like a challenge, but weather and our own failings provide that in spades for all but the most brilliant or foolish of us. Their seed is shockingly short-lived, remaining viable for only a year, less if poorly stored. As with all root crops, there is little option but to sow direct, yet germination is horribly slow. Especially if you sow in the dead cold of February as recommended, to get the longest season and therefore the broadest shoulders out of these shrinking violets. Where seeds and seedlings dilly-dally, pests and weeds don’t. Therefore success rates can be quite low.

Even those plants that survive to maturity, if sown into a “closed” soil structure, run the risk of being stunted, highly forked or developing canker as the weather wettens. So the only sensible option is to have someone in the peaty Fens to grow them for you or, the option most of the world has opted for, forget they existed in the first place.

We’ve gone for the former option, until this year, the Old Kitchen Garden rotation shifted to the Apiaceae – Carrot – family. See above for some very good reasons why parsnips shouldn’t have been chosen as the key representatives of this crop group. There are a few counter-reasons put forward as to why they could, even should, be, and ultimately Oscar had the casting vote. If you’re the sort of person that gets that tongue-twinkle on the morning after the first frost of winter, then the idea of a whole field of them – a winter store for every one of the three hundred and twenty households on our box scheme – this is the Field of Dreams.

Last year we trialled the cultivar “Halblange White”, a very broad-shouldered, short and stubby variety, and the limited root penetration it demanded from our heavy clay soil seemed to do the trick. Into the Field of Dreams we sowed 17,000 seed over three weeks. This may sound like a lot, but this would amount to the seed production of 6.5 average plants. Nature, as I like to say when planting out potato or artichoke tubers, gives a far higher interest rate than any bank.

Of these, around 5,000 now live to tell the tale, and what a tale. A tale of emerging where others fail to; weathering the droughts and deluges; surviving pest attack and wees competition. In this way the Parsnip Field connects with the mood of the moment: everywhere you look around the garden now, perfection is lacking but there is everything to show for all the mud sweat and tears invested from Day One.

There’s no business like show business, and there’s no show business like growing. And over the next few weeks across the land, whether it’s the Open Garden, the Allotment Competition, the Country Fair, or the Festival, it’s action, not fine words, that will butter the parsnips. It’s Show Time.