NATURE’S TURN: Spring harvests, spring sowing

As soon as the weather moderates, it’s open season for sowing seed of cool weather crops.

April 11 – 24, 2016

Mt. Washington — One balmy day at the beginning of April, as I approached a wide garden bed in which parsnips overwintered, I was surprised to see sprays of feathery green leaves emerging in a neat row where mulch had been pushed aside for digging a few of the sweet, white roots just before the ground froze in December. Warm days had encouraged the biennial plants to begin to grow new leaves, a cue to the gardener to harvest them right away. If the leaves are allowed to grow, the parsnips become fibrous.

Turga parsnips (Pastinaca sativa), April 1, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff

I fetched a digging fork, this gardener’s most used tool, from winter storage. With care, I slid the fork into the soft ground as deep as the tines are long, pushed forward on the handle, then pulled back until the earth cracked open and the tops of enormous, white roots appeared, delighting me. A bit more loosening and tentative pulling produced 14-inch long taproots, some 3 ½ inches at the shoulder. In the kitchen, I sliced off the sprouting tops, arranged some of the roots, dirt on, in a paper bag and put it in the crisper drawer while the rest went into a perforated plastic bag on a shelf in the refrigerator, where they will keep quite awhile. The parsnips, delicious raw or cooked, will be scrubbed, quartered and then braised, roasted, steamed or grated into many dishes. Overwintered parsnips have a sweet, mild carrot flavor and, when cooked, a creamy texture. They provide a quantity of reliable fresh food from the late winter-early spring garden before much else is ready.

For next spring’s harvest, sow parsnip seeds when planting all other cool weather vegetables. I’ll plant Turga parsnips in an unframed raised bed close to 40 inches wide by 5 feet long. The width allows for 3 rows 12 inches apart in the bed. In general, follow root crops with top producers in a crop rotation. Seed packets recommend a prodigious amount of overplanting and thinning. I prefer to place individual seeds for root crops at the distance apart the full-grown plant will occupy, except when edible young plants, like beets, will be thinned and eaten to allow the surrounding ones to grow larger.

Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis, the first garden-variety flower that feeds hummingbirds in my yard. The flowers and spotted leaves were bright before the snow and freezing weather returned on April 3. Photo courtesy

As soon as the weather moderates, it’s open season for sowing seed of cool weather crops. Space parsnips 3 to 4 inches apart and beets and onions 2 to 4 inches, if thinning to eat young plants. Carrots, depending on variety, do well with 1½ inch spacing. All the previous are sown in rows 12 inches apart. Table radishes can be spaced 1 inch apart in rows 4 inches apart. I like the concentration required to space seed deliberately. It’s been suggested that thinning carrots can attract the carrot fly – a pest I have not encountered. The opposite strategy, broadcasting seed, is very useful for lettuces and other cold hearty leafy green mixes. This, too, requires finesse in order to loosely scatter the seed while visualizing how the plants will grow to fill the entire bed.

And so the cycle begins again, from mysterious seeds to nourishing harvests. Our relationship to the life of the garden is rekindled. We find ourselves awake to the land – as clear, fresh and full of potential as our gardens – new after a winter’s slumber.


Parsnip page –

Pulmonaria / Lungwort –