Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Grow Your Own Turnips and Rutabagas

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Spring 2004 \ Grow Turnips

Turnip and rutabaga
Rutabagas (right) have a denser, mostly yellow-fleshed, rounder root than turnips. The leaves of rutabagas have a blue tint and are not hairy, as are those of turnips, and the roots of rutabagas arise from the underside of the tuber as well as from the taproot. Rutabagas take longer to grow but have a richer flavor. Illustration from The Principles of Vegetable Gardening by L.H. Bailey, 1905.

By Roberta Bailey

According to William Woys Weaver, “At one time Americans were as enthusiastic about turnips as they now are about tomatoes …. ” He surmises that the shift in popularity has to do with the many food choices now available in winter; the fact that we no longer depend on root cellar vegetables; and the fact that soup cookery has fallen out of fashion, the turnip having been a cornerstone of many older soup recipes.

I grew up eating rutabagas. My mother sliced them and served them in lamb stew or raw along with carrot sticks. They were mildly sweet and delicious. As an adult I have come to appreciate steamed turnip and turnip greens as a summer and fall treat. As with all vegetables, they are so much more flavorful fresh from the garden.

What’s the Difference?

Turnips (Brassica rapa) are a hardy biennial native to the Scandinavian peninsula, Russia and Siberia.

They grow quickly (about 40 to 50 days), forming a 2- to 4-inch, enlarged root with hairy green leaves emerging from the root crown. The flesh is predominantly white, though some varieties are rose tinted or gold fleshed. They are best picked small, as larger roots become fibrous. Seed catalogs once listed dozens of varieties, the seed often coming from England. Now most catalogs list two or three.

Rutabagas (Brassica napus) most likely originated from a cross between turnip and rape.

They are a long season plant (90 to 100 days), quickly developing an extensive, finely branched root system with a 2- to 3-foot taproot. The rutabaga forms above ground as an enlarged root. The leaves, which spring from a somewhat elongated neck, are blue- green and smooth. The roots, which tend to be gold fleshed, are more nutritious than a turnip. Rutabagas are extremely hardy and store well.

Turnips mature quickly and do not store for long periods. Rutabagas are slow to mature, are quite cold hardy and store extremely well. If you want a quick summer crop and lots of greens, grow turnips. For winter storage, rutabagas will keep into late spring.

Planting

Rutabagas and turnips have similar planting needs, with only a few variances. The roots can be grown throughout the country, though heat will make them woody or fibrous. In areas with a long growing season and a hot summer, turnips can be planted as a spring or fall crop, rutabagas as a fall crop.

Choose a sunny location, though partial sun will do. Avoid ground that has had any member of the cabbage family – even radishes – growing on it in the last three years. Neither root crop requires high levels of fertility, but they do need loose, humus-rich, well-drained loam with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Heavy clay topsoil can cause root branching. Manure can be turned into the area the previous fall, or well-rotted manure or compost can be dug into the bed or row in the spring.

Fast growing spring turnip crops may need a boost of fertility, especially if the crop is grown for greens. Phosphorous concentrations need to be adequate for root growth. Like beets and other root crops, turnips and rutabagas need trace amounts of boron. If your soils are deficient in boron, amend them with a good compost or add a small amount of agricultural borax or soil amendment containing boron. Brown heart or rotting in the root center is a symptom of boron deficiency. (Note that excessive applications of boron can be toxic to some other vegetable crops; and certified organic growers should visit www.omri.org to determine which boron products are allowed.)

Turnips can be planted as a spring or fall crop. Sow spring crops as soon as the ground can be worked. Fall crops can be sown in midsummer.

Rutabagas need at least 90 days to mature. Sow seeds at least three months before fall frost and harvest. In Maine plant rutabagas in mid-June to avoid the early flea beetles. Some years I still have to protect the tender young seedlings.

Sow seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep in a row or bed, spacing seeds about 1 inch apart. If the soil is dry, flood the furrows before seeding. Rows should be 15 inches apart for turnips and 18 inches apart for rutabagas.

Maintaining the Plot

The seed will germinate in three to seven days. Once plants are 4 to 6 inches high, thin them to 6 to 8 inches apart to ensure ample room for root development. The thinnings make excellent cooked greens, and young greens are tender enough for salads.

Weed the crops regularly or mulch to keep weeds down and moisture regulated.

Turnips may need a good weekly watering if conditions are dry. Due to their deep taproot, rutabagas are more tolerant of mild drought.

Top dressing should not be necessary unless you are growing turnips for their greens and the soil is not very fertile; then use a fertilizer that is high in nitrogen.

Turnips and rutabagas are plagued with many of the same pests as cabbage, broccoli and the rest of the cruciferous vegetables. Flea beetles, which make small holes in the leaves, can severely set back or kill young plants. Cover these plants with row cover or spray dormant oil. I prefer cottonseed-based oil to petroleum-based dormant oils.

Root maggots, which bore into the plant roots and stunt the plants, can be deterred by sprinkling wood ashes along the row or by covering the crop with cheesecloth or spun row cover to prevent the adult flies from laying their eggs on the soil surface.

Harvest

Turnips planted for greens can be harvested as soon as you thin them and for four to six weeks beyond that. Turnips grown for their roots should be left to grow, with only a few pickings for greens. Avoid cutting all the leaves off, as this will severely set back root formation. Dig or pull turnips when the roots are 2 to 4 inches in diameter. Fall crops can be left until a few frosts have hit, as frosts make the plant sweeter, but turnips cannot withstand freezing, so use them in fall and early winter.

Rutabagas can withstand some freezing. Dig roots before the ground freezes. Cut the tops an inch above the root and trim any long taproot. I pull my rutabagas in early October. After trimming, I store them in slightly damp leaf mold, sphagnum moss or sawdust. If your root cellar is dry, cover the roots in damp sand. Store them in a cellar between 32 and 38 degrees F. Roots can also be covered in paraffin or bees wax to minimize drying. Rutabagas store very well; I have kept them into late spring with no problems. Be sure to put the stragglers on the compost pile before the summer heat rots them. I have found few smells to rival the stench of rotten rutabaga.

Commonly available rutabaga varieties include ‘American Purple Top,’ ‘Laurentian,’ ‘Long Island Improved,’ ‘Joan,’ and a white variety, ‘Macomber.’ The most commonly available turnip variety is ‘Purple Top White Globe,’ but many catalogs are including heirlooms, such as ‘Gold Ball,’ ‘White Egg’ and ‘Gilfeather,’ as well as some modern Japanese hybrids, such as ‘Hakurei’ and ‘Scarlet Queen.’

Push back the rows of flashy modern vegetables and make room for some old fashioned rutabagas or a quick second planting of red turnips. Dust off the soup pot and dig out some recipes. Or simply slice them into salad. Surely your root cellar has room for a few rutabagas. Just remember, if you haven’t eaten them all come next June, get them out of the root cellar!
MOF&G Cover Spring 2004
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