Parsnips are the first harvest of the year, the sweeter for having spent the winter in the ground. But this year they aren’t. As in absent, missing, departed, history, in short, gone. They were there in October when we dug the last of the carrots and beets. They were there when the ground, still bare at Christmas, froze so deeply that the waterline to the Hancock town library iced up. Parsnips are tougher than plumbing. Parsnips are absolutely cold hardy, our spring reward for having survived all the blizzards and the school cancellations.
This year, though, they are not. As in missing in action, AWOL, dearly departed. The day the snow banks receded enough to expose bare ground, I picked a spading fork up off its hook in the tool shed and went to dig the first one. In the thirty feet of double row, that’s all that remained. One. One single parsnip, the sole survivor, the one left behind to remind us of all the sweet roots we won’t be eating. Not this year the steamed and buttered, the baked, the pureed. We are too late to the feast. Our lovely parsnips have been eaten by others.
Unlike the bare shoulders of carrots or beets, parsnip roots fatten up safely underground. I have seen deer hoof away enough soil to take a few bites, but not once the ground has frozen, or snow has buried the garden. This time, however, the roots have disappeared not from the top down but from the bottom up. As I turn over the soil I uncover a couple of crowns that are mere husks.
The snow that does such a good job of hiding the ground, also insulates it and provides cover to voles, those short-tailed, round-nosed, plump little rodents in the genus Microtus. You can look up them up in your Peterson Field Guide to the Mammals. The culprit here is the one commonly called a meadow vole, among the most prolific of all vertebrates. The females reach sexual maturity in a month and can have a litter every month thereafter, with six or so young at a time. Woodchucks hibernate, chipmunks. too. Not voles. They feed day and night all year long. On spring lawns those half tunnels in the grass mark where their trails ran beneath the snow. The entrances to their burrows lack the pushed-up piles of soil created by moles, those completely unrelated tunnelers that have never once even bitten into a parsnip.
It was clear last fall, as I mowed the field with the tractor, that the vole numbers were up. Their population crests every two to five years. In an old field in Virginia, researchers once reported a peak density of 983 meadow voles per acre versus the 67 per acre when the population was at its minimum. Hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, weasels, snakes, shrews, and domestic cats all eat voles, but they do not prevent eruptions, and I take care to protect the tender bark of young fruit trees by wrapping their trunks in cylinders of quarter-inch hardware cloth. But parsnips?
Some people claim that they share their gardens with wildlife. Fifty or so to one, hardly seems evidence here of much sharing. Some will point out that I could have shielded the parsnips with the same hardware cloth that I used to save the fruit trees from being girdled. Had the snow not been so deep for so long, I might have trapped the voles as I do to protect other vegetables during the growing season. Voles are a sucker for a chunk of apple wedged into the cup of one of those newer hard-plastic rat snap-traps, especially when the traps are hidden beneath an upturned nursery pot or box.
The loss of an over-wintered biennial crop is a risk that both the plant and the gardener take. For the plant, it is a summer’s accumulation of nutrients saved to make several feet of seed stalk and seeds the next summer. For the gardener, it is the starches and sugars to be consumed in a season of few other fresh vegetables.
The odds in this case were stacked against us both. The parsnip row ran alongside a bed of daylilies and herbs, plants which no doubt provided voles with summer cover and nesting ground. This year they will rotate into a bed as far way from other vegetation as possible.
As for this spring’s lost harvest, let us say that it is out to lunch, or whatever the feedings of voles are termed. The sustenance that parsnips have provided not to us, but to the voles, will in turn pass on to those who will dine on the diners themselves. It’s a long way round. Next year let the odds be in our favor, let us be first at the table.
Roger B. Swain