Turnips and Rutabagas

In the United States, rutabagas and turnips are often the brunt of jokes and considered barely edible. This is unfortunate because both are excellent vegetables that keep well. They can be used much like potatoes in soups and stews and are even delicious when served mashed like potatoes. They retain their firm texture when cooked in a stew much better than most potatoes. Though many people have distinct preferences for the flavor of one over the other, tunips and rutabagas are quite similar in their needs, habits and even appearance.

Turnips have white flesh and grow much more quickly – you can begin harvesting small turnips just 30 days after planting, and full-sized roots in 60 days. Rutabagas have yellow flesh, get bigger and tend to be sweeter than turnips. They take much longer to mature: usually three to four months.

Both of these crops need full sun (at least six hours a day) and rich soil that has a pH that's near neutral (6.8 to 7.5). If you have acidic soil, mix in wood ashes or limestone before planting. At the same time add some compost or rotted manure. Don't add fertilizer or the plants will produce more greens than roots.

Turnips and rutabagas are big plants. They send down a long, deep taproot, so seeds should be planted directly in the garden. Work the soil deeply with a spading fork or shovel to loosen it at least a foot deep before planting. Plant seeds a half-inch deep and an inch or two apart. Thin the seedlings to 4-6″ apart.

For best results, keep the soil evenly moist all summer long. Turnips can get woody and less flavorful if allowed to dry out in the heat of the summer. You can plant a second crop in the late summer for fall eating. The various colors and shapes of turnips all seem to taste about the same.

Cooked turnip greens are quite popular in some areas. If you want to eat the greens, be sure to leave enough leaves (five to six per plant) to produce the roots. The leaves are much richer in vitamins than the roots, providing good levels of vitamins A, B2, C and E.

A little fall frost will make the roots of these crops sweeter, but hard frosts will kill the tops and damage the roots. Harvested turnips and rutabagas can be stored in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Cut off all the leaves, retaining about 2″ of stems above the shoulder of the root. They can also be stored in a cool cellar, in a box filled with moist sand.