On April 15 – tax day – I celebrated getting my taxes done by eating my first food of the spring from my vegetable garden. Just a day or two after the snow melted I dug into the soil with a garden fork and dug parsnips for my first spring taste of goodness.

I firmly believe in eating seasonally and locally, though I’m not as rabid in my practices as author Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver, one of my favorite writers, spent a full year only eating food she and her family could harvest off their Virginia property, or buy from local farmers. In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she documents the joy and excitement of eating the first fresh fruits and vegetables of spring after a winter of eating root crops and frozen, homegrown veggies.

FRESHLY PICKED PARSNIPS from the garden.

FRESHLY PICKED PARSNIPS from the garden.

Although I freeze tomatoes and dehydrate apples, as Kingsolver does, I confess to buying fresh fruit all winter – there is no moral turpitude involved in eating a grapefruit in January or oranges in February. In fact, I think it’s healthy and good for maintaining a positive attitude during a winter like the one that just finished (or I hope it has, though one last snow would not surprise me).

But back to parsnips. I think of them as a spring tonic, a treat that offers me fresh flavors and vitamins only hours from the garden. Last summer I neglected to plant parsnips in the spring and couldn’t find any seeds for sale in July. So I used old seeds and consequently got a low germination rate. Then I let the weeds get in their patch, and my crop was not spectacular. Oh well, I still rejoice in the few parsnips that I have.

If radishes are the proverbial hares of the garden, parsnips are the tortoises. Both are root crops, but radishes can germinate in 3 days and produce round, red orbs in 28. Parsnips, on the other hand, are slow in everything they do. Germination can take from 10 to 21 days – or even longer if the soil is cold. I have read that they can take up to two months to germinate if the soil is in the forties. Sixtyeight degrees is ideal – so I am still a long way from planting. Parsnips take 4 months to reach full size, though I leave mine in the soil all winter, harvesting them 9 months after sowing.

When planting parsnips, you may as well plant the entire package of seeds as the seeds lose much of their viability after a year, and three-year old seeds are virtually useless. The seeds are fairly large, but need to be planted near the surface and barely covered with soil. I use an old kitchen colander to shake soil over seeds, which I plant an inch apart. Later, if I get good germination, I will thin the seedlings so that they are 2 to 4 inches apart. From what I have read, the rows should be 18 to 24 inches apart, though I’ve had good luck filling a wide raised bed with parsnips that are fairly close together all across it. In general, the more space a plant has, the bigger it gets. They will do fine in just part sun.

Parsnips are in the carrot family, which means that they are biennials. Biennials produce flowers and seeds in their second year, so I am sure to pick my parsnips early in the spring – given a chance they will bolt. By that I mean they will send up a flower stalk and then a flower. Once a plant starts to bolt the flavor and texture of the root changes, and is no longer good to eat. So if you have parsnips in the ground, go dig them up! They keep well in the fridge.

Another early vegetable in my garden is a perennial leafy green called sorrel. It is quite bitter and almost lemon flavored. The French love it, serving a sorrel soup as a spring specialty. Like spinach, it cooks down to almost nothing if you steam it, but it can be used to flavor dishes.

A recently found an interesting recipe using sorrel in a book on my shelf called Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide by Elizabeth Schneider (Harper and Row, 1986). I like it as it uses both parsnips and sorrel, as well as potatoes – and I still have a few left from last summer.

Just peel and chop a pound of potatoes ( old, starchy ones, it says) and 3/4 pound of parsnips; boil them until soft. Meanwhile, cut up 6 ounces of sorrel and sauté in 2 ounces of butter until soft and mushy. Mash the root crops when cooked, add the sorrel and some heavy cream. My sorrel is up, but not ready to harvest, though it should be in a couple of weeks.

Sorrel seeds are available, but I haven’t had great luck getting them to germinate. Many garden centers are now selling small pots of sorrel in their herb department, and 3 plants will make a nice patch. Just plant them in full sun or part shade in a place where the soil is rich and lightly moist most of the time.

Chives and garlic chives are onion-family perennial greens that are up and ready to put in salads or baked potatoes. They are absolutely easy to grow, just buy a pot of them and as the clump gets bigger you can divide it and have more. Garlic chives are less well known than chives, and have a stronger flavor. Their leaves are a bit bigger than chives, and they have nice flowers in summer.

Spring and summer are on their way. I’m just glad to have a few things from the garden I can eat now. Rhubarb and asparagus are on their way soon, too.

HENRY’S NEW BOOK is an expanded second edition of The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion. Available at bookstores, or signed copies by emailing Henry at [email protected]


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