20th Jan 1999
At this time of year there isn't a lot that one can do outside in the vegetable garden provided that you have already had the soil turned over and the Winter frosts are now doing their work on it. One job however that has to be done now is the preparation work in readiness for sowing parsnips which are always the first vegetable seed to be sown directly outdoors. If you intend to have a serious attempt at winning with parsnips then you really have to start now, the first decision you have to make is how are you going to grow them.
Many years ago when I first started exhibiting vegetables I used to bore holes as deep as I could using a 5 ft steel bar directly into the soil and filling the holes up with an equal mixture of sieved soil and sand. The parsnips grew really well, indeed they grew too well as the roots of the plant found it's way out of the mixture in the bore hole and into the garden soil itself. The problem really was that they were too big, indeed the only good thing about them was their size, they were lacking in every other meritorious attribute.
Growing Above the Ground
I soon realised that if I was going to have parsnips that had size as well as having the other meritorious attributes of condition shape colour and uniformity I had to alter my method of growing them. The first change was to grow them above the ground using six inch diameter pipes, the first lot were clay drainage pipes which produced some superb specimens but proved to be rather expensive as I had to smash nearly all of them in order to get the parsnips out. The following year I invested in some plastic pipes and even today I still use these pipes for growing my parsnips for Chelsea at the University greenhouses at Bangor. The good thing about plastic is that you can really bang the outer walls with a solid piece of timber to release the compost from around the parsnip.
Drums and Raised Beds
I then progressed to growing them in 45 gallon oil drums with the bottoms removed to create a circular ring, these drums were then filled with sand and five holes bored deeply in each drum. Today I grow them in raised beds constructed with concrete blocks and raised above the soil level by some three feet, these beds are also filled with concreting sand. The important task now, if you haven't already done so, is to empty out either the drums or the raised beds and replace the sand. This is really essential in order to slacken up the sand which can become as hard as concrete in the lower regions making boring a hole a very hard task indeed.
I have always sown my parsnip seed around the first week in March, but this year I intend to sow them earlier, probably around the middle of February which should give me bigger specimens for the August shows. Always use fresh parsnip seed every year as the life expectancy of these seed is only one year and having put so much effort into the whole operation it would be a waste of resources to use old seed. Germination can vary tremendously with parsnips depending on the season, an early warm Spring kind of weather can see them germinate as soon as ten days after sowing but they could take up to five weeks as well.
There are some tremendous F1 hybrid varieties available today and although they are all bred for the supermarkets all of them are also excellent for the show bench. There are definitely horses for courses, if a particular parsnip grows well for you in your area, then stick with it, it can often be a mistake to change a variety just for the sake of it. Of course try a few of the newer ones, but still rely on the variety that consistently gives you the best results.
The first F1 hybrid on the market was Gladiator, this was then followed by Javelin and Archer and this year another two new hybrids are available from my seed catalogue called Dagger and Panache both of which are really worth sparing a few bore holes for. There are another two new hybrids on the horizon as well which really spoils us for choice.
If you want to have a good go at parsnips this year, then in a few weeks time I shall tell you how I intend to grow them. The mixture that I intend using will be the one that Jack Arrowsmith from Brecon used when he won the best exhibit in show with the tremendous set of three that he staged at the Welsh Championships last September. These were the best parsnips that I have ever seen, they were twelve inches around the shoulder and gradually tapering down to sixty seven inches in length. Not only were they large they had superb quality as well without a blemish on them, the variety was Gladiator.