Posted on 19 March 2013 by

Swallowtails and Parsnips – A Lesson in Organic Gardening

Photo Credit: Parsnip by Ben and Flo used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo Credit: Parsnip by Ben and Flo used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

Sometimes gardening is not about growing vegetables but instead the knowledge that is cultivated through hard work and ones relationship to nature.

This unexpected knowledge obtained through growing ones own food is something that I treasured when I think about my kids.

While they may remember our time in the garden a little different, I recall it as a special time where discovery of the world was mutual and the flavor of a fresh tomato out of the garden never tasted so sweet.

One special moment that I treasure so dearly was the year we grew parsnips.

Well, as you can image, the gardening experience started out with a hope that our parsnip crop would grow by leaps and bounds. I talked to many people about how to grow parsnips and was disappointed with the results. I live in a somewhat rural area where corn, tomatoes, and soybeans rule. There was no room for such an odd vegetable. But I was determined to grow them even though no one in my community had ever heard of a parsnip.

So on a cold winter night, my kids and I sat down and looked through the mass of seed catalogs. My daughter picked out her cherry tomato seeds while my son picked out his “baby carrot” stash. After we had our garden staples selected, I picked out the parsnips. To my children, these were just white carrots but unknown to us they would be more.

The season started out great. I had read that parsnips have a low germination rate, so I planned accordingly. Two packages of parsnip seeds were planted in rows dotted with radishes. Once the planting had been finished, the next step was the wait, wait, and wait.

After several weeks, the radishes were doing great and a few, and I mean a few, parsnips seeds had germinated. But I viewed this as a lesson that we all could learned from. But there was another lesson that would be learned and that lesson would not be apparent until much later.

Around late June to early July, my daughter came in from the garden with a delightful look on her face. I could not figure out why she was sooo happy. Her cherry tomatoes, that she loves, were not producing yet and the pumpkins were not ready for carving. So what could have in squealing with delight?

As I talked to her, she kept saying, “Come see Mommy, Come See.” So out to the garden we went. What I saw was so magical and it was so important that we wrote a family store about the experience in our garden journal.

The story was the swallowtail and the parsnip. To my dismay or lack of parsnip knowledge, swallowtails love to lay their eggs in parsnip fronds and to my shock this is what had happened. What my daughter had witnessed were the eggs. But once the eggs hatch, the little caterpillars feast on the vegetation of the parsnip. To rid your parsnips of the swallowtail caterpillars, one can handpick them off. But when you have a daughter who loves butterflies, this is not an option.

So the story of growing parsnips in our garden ended with no crop but a lot of butterflies. The lesson I learned that year was that gardening consists of more than growing food. Instead, it is a time to study and enjoy the pure magic of nature, even if that means you get no parsnips.

Until we blog again, the road to gardening is full of failures and successes. How you look at the experience depends on the lessons learned.

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