Chris Mitchell’s Nature Notes: Parsnips in lockdown

Parsnip seeds

By Chris Mitchell

How lucky we are to have a garden. Now more than ever during this period of lockdown we have turned our efforts to producing as much fruit and veg as possible.

And so I thought I would get an early start and prepare the ground.

All through that glorious early spell of dry weather, I dug for victory.

I dug like a man possessed and the nettles and docks were positively flying out from the dry soil.

The problem was, I developed blisters on hands that had been used to nothing more than tapping a keyboard over the winter.

And now after following the government advice, to keep washing my hands, my blisters were taking weeks to heal.

Never mind, there was plenty to do wearing black silk gloves.

I can sow the parsnips.

Plant them outside on top of the three-inch-diameter holes that I had already prepared earlier, carefully filled with sifted soil.

Get them off to an early start – three per hole then cover lightly with half an inch of fine soil.

Then cover with fleece to safeguard against frost.

A complete waste of time! Not one germinated.

I’d heard someone had tried starting parsnip seeds indoors on damp kitchen paper.

It was worth a try and so I scattered what remained on a prepared tray and placed it on the window ledge in the warmth of the sitting room.

Nothing happened and I had used up all my seeds. They were last year’s seeds and now having checked on the internet, I realise that parsnip seeds are not as viable after being kept a year.

And so I try and order fresh seeds from my usual suppliers. All sold out!

Everyone it seems is gardening. First it was toilet rolls and now parsnip seeds.

I mention my plight to friends who happen to be au fait with eBay.

And sure enough they find a supplier and manage to have a packet sent to me direct from somewhere in Devon.

Meanwhile Janet was on the case and managed to find two more suppliers and ordered them, the seeds I mean.

They took nearly two weeks to arrive.

Now I have them – all three packets, but outside the weather remains arctic, with temperatures still in single figures.

Try inside again; scatter them on the moist kitchen paper and keep checking for signs of a root.

Weeks go by. Gosh it’s nearly the end of May. It will be mid-summer next month and the nights will be drawing in!

And then just a few days ago, I notice ten seeds had sprouted a tiny tap root, nascent parsnips. Sheer joy!

Quick – outside with a plastic spatula and carefully lift each into its vacant plot and cover with fine soil. Today two more on the window ledge are showing signs of a tiny root.

What a state to be in: examining parsnip seeds each morning and evening with a magnifying glass!

What is this lockdown doing to me?

I relieve the tension over a phone call to a friend down in Buckinghamshire. But it doesn’t help to know he is experiencing temperatures in the mid-twenties, sitting out in his garden, too exhausted to move except to eat a choc ice, whilst I am wearing three pullovers and trying to garden in a balaclava.

Janet has been searching the internet. She tells me: “Parsnip seeds are slow to germinate, and even fresh seeds can have low viability.”

Great, that’s all I need to know… “To germinate well they need a soil temperature of at least 4 degrees and an air temperature around 24 degrees.”

Well that’s our garden on Skye out of bounds – perhaps I could send some seeds down to Buckingham and have them returned fully-sprouted in the post?

This is silly.

I managed to grow some last year, and the years before that. Surely it’s possible again?

Today it turned a little warmer and the forecast for the week ahead is for temperatures in double figures.

Don’t worry, I keep telling myself. The parsnips and the rest of the garden should recover.

They usually do.