How to grow parsnips from seed

Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) also called “White gem” is an easy to grow root vegetable perfect for gardeners of all levels. 

This article will take you through the steps from planting seeds indoors all the way to harvesting the parsnip root much later on.

I start my plants early in the year in pots. You can however also plant the seeds outdoors directly when the average soil temperature exceeds 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit).

Parsnip requires patience and space

As I have already mentioned the parsnip is an easy to grow and low maintenance vegetable. 

But it does require space and patience to yield the best results. 

And yes, it does mean growing all the way through the summer season where other herbs and vegetables could have been harvested if grown in that same spot.

But if you have the space and the patience I welcome you to the circle of parsnip growers.

Believe me, it is worth it.

7 steps to grow parsnips from seed to harvest

The parsnip plant wants to grow in full sun in well drained deep and stone free soil that has been well dug.  

But first, let’s look at how we get to the stage where we transplant the parsnip seedling to the vegetable garden.

1. Choosing the pot

I use pots made from recycled plastic for my parsnip seeds.

I have had these plastic pots for a very long time and I will continue using them until they break.

The plastic pot also helps me control the moisture and heat as there is no evaporation or storage of heat to speak of.

2. Choosing the soil

Planting the seeds I use a 50/50 mixture of nutrition richer potting soil and a finer and leaner cactus soil.

I have both these products but you can of course use whatever potting soil you have at home.

But avoid using soils that are overly fertilized as they may burn the new roots when the seeds germinate.

3. Planting the seeds

To grow parsnip from seed you make a hole and plant the seeds 1-2 cm deep in your pot. Make sure to place the pot in a warm and light place but avoid direct sunlight. 

I always plant at least 5 seeds per hole as parsnip seeds do not always geminate.

Fresh seeds will always work best whereas old seeds often fail to germinate. This is also why I never save store bought seeds from one season to another.

When I have planted the seeds I water from underneath by placing the mpots in a water bath. 

But if you prefer you can of course also water the soil thoroughly before you plant the seeds. . Alternatively we water the pot from underneath after we have planted the seed. 

4. Waiting for germination and signs of life

Cotyledons or seed leaves forming from parsnip seed
The parsnip seed is slow to germinate why the first sign of life is always welcome

Remember that we talked about patience? Now we have to wait for the first seed leaves or cotyledons to appear from our germinating seeds.

It can easily take 3-4 weeks for the seeds to germinate and while we wait we make sure to keep the soil moist.

This is also a good reason to oversow and add more than one seed per pot. 

It takes several weeks to find out if a seed will fail to germinate. By planting 5 seeds per hole we maximize our chances of healthy germination. 

5. Transplanting seedlings to our vegetable garden

The parsnip plant wants to grow in full sun in well drained and stone free soil that has been well dug. 

I prefer to transplant early and I only make sure that the soil temperature is above an average of 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit).

As soon as the first true leaf appears I am ready to transplant.

You will know when the true leaf appears as it looks different than the first seed leaves or cotyledons.

I do not separate the individual seedlings but simply empty and transplant the entire pot to the vegetable garden.

Plant seedlings approximately 10-15 cm apart. If you are transplanting rows of seedlings keep the rows approximately 30 cm apart. 

6. Looking after the parsnip plant

The parsnip is truly a low-maintenance plant but there are a couple of things we should keep in mind to maximize the production.

To help the plant grow you can thin out the seedlings by gently removing the weaker seedlings as the plant develops.  I usually don’t and will explain why in step 7. 

Most of the growth of the root happens late in the season.

In other words, be patient and let the plant do its work. The parsnip roots will be ready for delicious hearty soups for the fall and winter season.

I do not add any store-bought fertilizer. Instead much like with growing horseradish I enrich the soil by adding grass clippings around the plants. The grass clippings add natural nutrients and help keep the soil around the plant moist during hot summer days. 

I diligently keep the area with parsnips free from weeds and loosen the soil around the plant with a pitchfork a few times during the growing season.

Every now and then the leaves will be attacked by pests. My first line of defense is always to remove the leaves under attack and then to keep an eye on the plant. And most of the time it is enough.

7. Harvest the parsnip root

Parsnips can take more than 120 days from sowing seeds to reach full maturity.

We can harvest the parsnip roots from October through December depending on the climate.

You can even, if you want, leave the roots outside over winter as long as the plants are covered to protect from the cold.

The general rule is in other words not to be in a rush to harvest your parsnip crops. The longer you wait the tastier the root.

And this is where we get the reward from not having already thinned out the seedlings. 

Instead we do it now and get small and fresh parsnip roots as we thin out the plants. 

We have now extended the harvesting season and given the plants we left behind more room to develop. 

Harvest your own parsnip seeds for new plants

It is of course very easy to buy parsnip seeds from your gardener or simply order quality seeds online.

Growing parsnip to harvest seeds for new plants
Seeds on parsnip plant

But I prefer to harvest my own seeds. And I think you should try it as well as it is very easy.

Parsnips are self-fertile and the good news is that the plant will accept pollination by pollen from the same plant or another plant of the same variety.

But for best results and to ensure genetic variety it is wise to aim for at least 5 plants that you allow to flower and set seeds. 

When the parsnip flowers you will soon after see the seeds forming in the crown.

When the seeds turn light brown they are ready to be harvested.

Simply shake the branch over a large bag or pick the seeds with your fingers. 

Parsnip seeds can be stored for years when kept in a cool, dry place. 

Harvesting parsnip seeds from parsnip scraps

My favorite method to introduce diversity when growing parsnips for seeds is to simply use parsnip cuttings when I am cooking.

We love to cook with parsnips. And since we have a large family we need to buy parsnips from the Supermarket every now and then. When using parsnip from the supermarket I simply use parsnip scraps to grow new parsnip plants.

As parsnips are biennials they will flower in their second year. But I have always been successful with the cuttings I have planted.  

Parsnips will not re-grow a new root when you grow them from cuttings. The cutting will however produce a wonderful plant that will bloom and set seeds.

I recommend cutting off about 3 cm (1 inch) of the top where the leaves are attached.

Now plant the cutting in a glass of water. After a couple of days you will see new green roots forming and there should also be some new growth from the top of the root.

After about 1 – 2 weeks we are ready to transplant the root cutting. 

When you plant in soil you make a hole about 3 cm (1 inch) deep and cover it with soil. Make sure to water and keep it moist. You do not need to use a large or deep container as the growth we are looking for will be above ground.

Now all we have to do is to wait for the plant to bloom and set seeds.

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants and garden vegetables. For the past two years he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.