Turnips and rutabagas add an earthy-tasting crunch to a cool-season garden.
Illustration By Keith Ward
(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)
Growing turnips and rutabagas is easy, and these earthy-tasting vegetables are among the most dependable cool-weather crops. Chilly temperatures make turnip greens sweeter and enhance the crisp texture of turnip and rutabaga roots. Harvested turnips and rutabagas will store for months in the refrigerator, lasting well into winter.
Types of Turnips and Rutabagas to Try
Salad turnips (Brassica rapa) quickly grow into robust plants, making them a good choice for both spring and fall plantings. They produce a uniform crop of sweet, crunchy roots the size of golf balls, ideal for eating raw or pickling. Salad turnips also produce delicious greens.
All-purpose turnips (Brassica rapa), which include purple-top varieties, take longer to mature than salad turnips but yield larger roots. Young greens that have been exposed to frost are a special fall treat, and roots can be harvested as needed until the ground freezes. You can also grow these turnips and greens for your livestock.
Rutabagas (B. napobrassica) are an ancient cross between turnips and cabbage, with thick, dark leaves similar to those of broccoli. Rutabagas take twice as long as turnips to mature, but the dense, buttery roots are worth the wait.
For more information about types of turnips and rutabagas and our recommended varieties, see our Turnips and Rutabagas at a Glance chart.
When to Plant Turnips and Rutabagas
Sow a spring crop of salad turnips two to three weeks before your last frost date; for a fall crop, plant seeds up to 50 days before your first fall frost. Sow all-purpose turnips for fall harvest 60 to 70 days before your first fall frost and sow rutabagas 100 days before your first fall frost.
How to Plant Turnips and Rutabagas
Turnips and rutabagas are good crops to plant in spaces vacated by early potatoes or peas, or between rows of harvested sweet corn. They grow best in fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Mix a light application of a balanced organic fertilizer into the planting bed unless ample nutrients remain in the soil from the previous crop. Loosen the soil to at least 12 inches deep while mixing in a half-inch layer of compost.
Sow turnip seeds about 2 inches apart and half an inch deep. Turnips can be planted in rows spaced 6 inches apart, or you can broadcast the seeds over the bed and pat the soil to firm them into place. After seeds have germinated, thin turnips to 2 inches apart. Two weeks later, when the plants reach 4 inches tall, thin turnips (other than salad turnips) to 4 inches apart (and enjoy the greens from the pulled plants!). Salad turnips grow well even if spaced only 2 to 3 inches apart.
Sow rutabaga seeds 3 inches apart and a half-inch deep, allowing at least 18 inches between rows. Although transplanting rutabagas isn’t usually recommended, starting seeds indoors and setting out week-old seedlings under shade covers is often the best way to get a good stand of rutabagas growing in hot summer weather. Thin direct-seeded rutabagas to at least 8 inches apart. Mulch to keep the soil cool and moist during hot summer weather.
Harvesting and Storage
For the best flavor, harvest salad turnips when they are less than 2 inches in diameter. Store the greens in plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer. Store salad turnip roots that have had their tops trimmed back to 1 inch in the refrigerator for up to several weeks.
With all-purpose turnips, you can harvest two to three outer leaves per plant every two weeks, and the roots will continue to grow. Keep thinning plants and eating the greens, removing those plants that show no signs of bulbing. Pull all-purpose turnips when they are more than 2 inches in diameter, and eat or keep the greens. Mature turnips with their tops trimmed back to 1 inch will store for three months in plastic bags in the fridge. You can also store unwashed, trimmed turnips in damp sand in a root cellar.
Pull rutabagas when the bulbs are larger than 3 inches in diameter, and immediately trim the tops back to half an inch. You can keep your rutabagas refrigerated in plastic bags, or stow them in damp sand in a root cellar for longer storage.
Turnips are winter hardy through Zone 7, and with protection in Zone 6. In climates where turnips survive winter, allow up to three healthy plants to bloom and produce seeds. When the 2-inch-long seedpods turn tan in early summer, gather them in a paper bag, allow the seeds to dry indoors for a week, and then select the largest seeds for replanting.
Rutabagas are true biennials that bloom best in their second year. In fall, select three neighboring plants to be seed producers. Use a protective tunnel to help them survive winter. In spring, the plants will produce 3-foot-tall spikes of yellow flowers. When the 3-inch-long seedpods turn tan in early summer, clip the seed-bearing branches. Gather the seedpods in a paper bag, allow them to dry indoors for a week, and then collect the biggest seeds for replanting.
Pests and Diseases
Gathering outer leaves from turnips naturally interrupts the life cycles of various leaf spot diseases and insect pests. Watch for outbreaks of aphids. If an aphid problem does develop, remove any badly infested leaves, and try our aphid control tips.
As rutabagas grow, they often shed their oldest leaves, which you should gather up and compost. This will reduce slug problems and interrupt the life cycles of many pests and diseases. In fall, lightweight row covers may be needed to protect turnips and rutabagas from deer.
Tips for Growing Turnips
Turnips require attentive weeding and regular watering in order to quickly grow to mature size. Troubled turnips can often be rejuvenated if you cut all foliage back to 2 inches from the crown.
In the weeks just before they bulb, rutabagas need soil that is constantly moist. If the soil’s dry, a sudden rain can cause under-watered rutabagas to crack.
In the Kitchen
Turnips and rutabagas are gaining popularity thanks to their big flavors and versatility. Salad turnips can be eaten raw in slaws and salads, stir-fried with ginger and sesame oil, or pickled for longer storage. Common preparations for larger turnips include cooking them and mashing them with potatoes and roasting with other root veggies (toss with garlic and herbs for a flavor punch). Firm rutabagas can be mashed, grated for rutabaga hash browns or pasta, or seasoned and baked as rutabaga fries. Rutabagas offer a healthy amount of potassium and fiber. Rutabagas and turnip greens are great sources of vitamin C, and turnip greens also provide an abundance of calcium and iron.