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The real test of a parsnip is in its taste. Whether it's in the soil or in the oven, Fiona Lawrenson has some handy tips for getting the most out of this rewarding root vegetable

As a child I loathed parsnips - they sat on my plate, with the Sunday lunch, looking pale and insipid, boiled and uninteresting. No disrespect to my mother's cooking, but they didn't do it for me, not until I reached adulthood and my own kitchen. Now the humble parsnip is big time back on the menu, but in a different guise altogether!

Parsnips all said and done are a very valuable winter veg to have in your garden. They are hardy and after a cold spell the starch in the root turns to sugar, making them sweeter than ever.

They Need
They do require an open site on a soil that is deep and light in texture. If you have a shallow, stony soil, parsnips aren't for you unless you grow them in raised beds or grow a short bulbous variety such as 'Avonresister'. They require a pH of 6.5, so if your soil is too acidic apply lime. A lack of lime in the soil can increase the risk of canker, which is the disease that appears in the form of blackish-brown patches on the crown and shoulders. Sadly there's no effective remedy to this problem, so prevention rather than cure makes for a happier parsnip!

To Grow
Parsnips are fussy germinators and the seed must be fresh - no older than two years. Sowing is often recommended for late Feb/early March so as to ensure a long growing season. But as their germination can be slow and patchy if the soil is cold, really, what's the point if your overall germination results will be poor? I wait for a little more warmth in the soil and sow in mid/late April.

Sow in well-prepared soil which has a fine tilth in rows 1/2 inch deep and 12 inches apart. Sow the seed at intervals along the drill, a method called 'station sowing'. This is advised because of the low germination rate. Sow 2-4 seeds at intervals spaced 5 inches apart. Once germinated, thin to one plant.

For overall care, keep weed-free and don't water in a sporadic manner as this will cause them to split and become woody. Either water regularly or not at all.

To Harvest
Parsnips are ready to lift from October onwards. You'll find the foliage dies away completely in the winter, so mark the row. Lift the roots whenever required and they should keep you going through till March. To make lifting easier in frozen spells, cover the rows with dead bracken or straw. Right now, after a couple of frosts, they should be just about perfect.

Recommended Varieties
‘Avonresister’ - short-rooted, ideal for shallow soils
‘Cobham Improved Marrow’ - good resistance to canker
‘Tender and True’ - lovely long roots, little hard core, good resistance to canker
‘Archer’ - long white roots, smooth skins, good resistance to canker, strong germination, high yielder.

Roast Parsnips
Transform your parsnips into a golden, crispy delight. Simply peel and slice long ways, parboil for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and dry in kitchen paper. In the meantime, place a roasting tin on the top of your stove. Add olive or vegetable oil to a depth of approximately 1 cm deep. Heat until hot, then add the dried parsnips and a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary. Take a fork and very carefully cover them in the oil before placing into a pre-heated oven at 190C for approximately 15 minutes or until crisp, golden and delicious.

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