Ploughing for Parsnips (and Other Root Crops)

With the snow finally gone, a gardener’s mind turns to working the soil.

But, to work it too soon could leave it in unwieldy clumps, and too late would mean that most or all of the soil moisture has soaked away. So it is difficult to know when the best time to cultivate is.

At least that’s how it is with my garden.

My garden soil is a combination of sand and silt. It has taken a lot of compost, manure and other organic matter (weeds and old plant stocks) to enable it to hold onto moisture for any amount of time, which is better for the rest of the summer, but in the spring, not so much.

You would think that the spring runoff would, well, run off. And while most of it does, there is still a lot of moisture that soaks into the soil. If the subsoil is still frozen, then it doesn’t soak away very fast, either, which means that the soil is still too wet to work and I will have to wait.

Last fall, we got a “new” 1963 tractor and I have been eagerly anticipating using it this spring. Then, just after all the snow was gone, it started to run very rough and looked like it was going to need to go and have some serious work done on it.

My heart sank.

If the tractor was out of commission, then I wouldn’t be able to work the garden in a timely manner and that would set back my planting times. And in the Yukon, the last thing you want is a late planting.

Allan (my husband) decided to tinker with the motor just to see what he could do. And, to my absolute thrill, he was able to get it working again without all the major work being necessary, at least for now.

Once it was running, he decided to hook up the cultivator and give the garden a try. It looked dry enough (or maybe that was wishful thinking).

The tractor wasn’t even halfway onto the garden when the front tires started to sink. They went down about six inches before he was able to reverse out of there. Definitely too wet to try and work up yet.

Oh well, it was a nice thought and I went back to planting my deep beds.

Deep beds are great for that early-season crop. They tend to be snow-free and warm up earlier than other areas of the garden. So when that wonderful plus-20 was here at the beginning of May, I decided to plant something – anything.

I found some seed for spinach and radishes, dug a rake out of the snowbank and went to work. Not all of the soil was ready for planting, so I did what I could and left the rest for another day.

To my amazement, seeds I had planted on Monday of that week were up and leafing out on Thursday. When I told my mother this (she’s a gardener, too), she said, “It really only takes minutes for spinach to germinate.” I think she was exaggerating, but she has been gardening for a very long time and may know something I don’t.

In the evenings, Al and I like to walk around the property, sometimes checking on different perennials, sometimes just enjoying the evening and watching the dogs romp.

One evening, not so long ago, Allan pointed out something that was completely unexpected. Where I had planted parsnips, in the fall of 2007, were new parsnip plants.

Now this probably means I didn’t find them all when I harvested them last fall. And if that is the case, then these won’t produce a good edible root, but seeds instead.

Parsnips and other root crops are biennials: they store up nutrients in their roots and, the following summer, use that stored energy to go to seed. How wonderful if they do; I will have Yukon-hardy parsnip seeds (and I am willing to share).

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