How many times have you re-sown your parsnip seed this spring? Twice? Three times? Maybe even four! If you're still looking at an empty row where there should be little green leaves, don't despair. Germinating parsnip seed is traditionally regarded as being so difficult that a whole collection of mysterious advice has grown up around it. Some gardeners insist that seed be totally fresh. Others swear that running a kettle of boiling water along the seed once its in its drill (seed row) will do the trick. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what advice you follow, you may still be disappointed, especially in a cold season, unless, of course, you reach for your (or your partner's!) eye-brow tweezers, and go for my tried and true no-panic-parsnip germination technique. Here's how it works (and if you think it sounds like micro-surgery, believe me, it's a lot less labour intensive than sowing, re-sowing, sowing again, and then having to creep along the row thinning the little blighters!) So:
- Soak some parsnip seed overnight in a dish of water (fresh seed is best but if you're using some from the previous year, soak a heap more than you'll actually require).
- Lay a paper handtowel (or a wad of loo-paper) on a saucer, and moisten it thoroughly.
- Sprinkle the seed over the paper, and cover it with another moistened sheet of paper. Cover the lot with plastic-wrap, and place in a warm place such as your hot-water cupboard, a sunny window ledge, or on a heat pad.
- Check regularly to see how germination is going and, when you spot those little white root-shoots, reach for the tweezers.
- Make your seed drill, and without touching the root-shoot, use the tweezers to gently lift each seed into the row. At this stage, you can be 99% sure that all your seeds will grow, so space them out far enough that thinning won't be required. If you have left-over seed, sow the lot in one spot at the end of the row (once these "extras" grow two seed leaves, you can transplant them, as required, into any spots in the row where seeds haven't come through the ground.)
- Cover the seed with very fine soil (sieved or finely crumbled garden soil will do or, better still, use fine potting mix).
Chitting this fussy seed (sprouting it before you sow it in the ground) is good for you and your parsnips. It provides the seed with the best possible conditions in which to germinate and, if you're looking to save money by using seed left-over from last year, it will allow you to "know before you sow" what's germinated and what hasn't. And you won't have to thin!
Word of warning: if you've grabbed your partner's eye-brow tweezers, return them to her beauty-kit – or parsnips won't be all you have to worry about!
Hot-tip for parsnip perfectionists: if you're planning on winning "the biggest parsnip" section of your local garden show, try this crafty trick: at seed-sowing time, ram a crow bar (or something similar) into the ground and work it around to create a deep cone space in the soil. Fill the space with fine dry soil, potting mix, or either of these ingredients mixed with fine river sand. Sow the seed on top of the specially prepared spot, and cover as usual. The loose soil will mean uninterrupted growth for your (hopefully), giant parsnips.