Plucked parsnips prompt plan to improve soil

Leaves and guinea pig waste

I’ve never really bothered about the leaves flailing around my garden in winter. I leave them to settle and lie on the grass and flowerbeds. They disappear by mid-spring. Or summer at the latest.

This year, however, I decided to take advantage of a bright day and put them to good use. The prompt was parsnips.

Last weekend, after the snow had melted, I dug up some of the parsnips I had planted last May. We had tried a couple before Christmas – after a ‘first frost’, as advised by many people – but they tasted very floral. Which was weird. It was also pretty small, and had bunched itself into a sphere, rather than a cone shape.

The most recent crop were also large and bulbous at the top, but retained oddities in shape. They had several long tentacles, like Hollywood might imagine an alien, but not one, uniform cone-shaped tail.

A stony issue

There could be many reasons for this but one – suggested by a couple of people – is that the parsnips met stones as they grew downwards in the earth. The other, very real, conclusion is that they had not grown perfectly in the clumpy soil. Is it too clay based? That is why a friend in Nutfield does not grow parsnips, declining orders to even start them off for a popular local plant sale.

However, my garden’s earth doesn’t seem particularly clay based. The patch in which I grew the latest crop is pretty solid, though. It isn’t fine and sticks together. After all, it is only a few years since I stripped out a patch of grass to turn this area into a vegetable area. Therefore, the ground is not as well worked as one that has been, for example, an allotment for many years. The slightest impediment or stiffness, therefore, might impede the progress of parsnips.

Last summer, the area of which I write was full of beetroot, courgettes, a couple of stray potatoes (sprouted no doubt from previous years, but cultivated nonetheless) and a few parsnips. Others were in pot. A motley crew, but a variety of produce. Experimentation is key for me – to learn what might be best next year.


Parsnips – tasty as they were – might not make the cut again for growing next time. However, it was clear that the earth needed breaking up, for whatever seeds might be used. That’s where the leaves came in. Ideally shredded, I decided to dig these into the ground, with some guinea pig bedding waste (hay, straw, chippings and poo) in the hope of breaking up the soil and adding nutrients.

From mulch to much?

It might have been better had the leaves been sodden – mulch. But they seemed wet enough. I also considered that, if drying, many of these leaves were brittle and would soon break up.

I discovered a great explanation of why we should reuse our leaves, from a blog written in Texas, United States. The Aggie Culture post dissuades locals from putting leaves in curbside recycling because that goes to landfill. Even the garden waste bin contents, it seems. Luckily, here we can be assured that Reigate and Banstead Borough Council turns this type of waste into compost.

The blog reveals that leaves contain 50% to 80% of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and air. That makes them a valuable component of perhaps our compost bins. Before emptying the winter contents of my compost bin, though – which I intend to add to this patch – I went for the direct approach of digging them straight in. Let the worms and other creatures now do their work!

Last autumn, I buried some guinea pig bedding waste into the extended vegetable patch further down the garden. (This is fully organic, because guinea pigs are vegetarians, but it is barred from garden waste bin collections because it is “pet waste”.) This has given it more time to work. However, I know that these next two months before the real planting season is the time it is most likely to start to process properly, as the weather warms.