How to Grow Turnips and Rutabagas

MOTHER'S vegetable garden shares how to grow turnips and rutabagas, including the history and horticulture of turnips and rutabagas, what, where, when and how to plant, pests, and how to harvest and store turnips and rutabagas.


| September/October 1988



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It's worth putting in a turnip patch just to enjoy a "potlikker" dish.


PHOTO: PHILLIPE LOUIS HOUZE

MOTHER'S vegetable garden shares how to grow turnips and rutabagas. If you want to keep these root crops growing quickly, water is the secret. 

How to Grow Turnips and Rutabagas

THE TURNIP HAS, WITH GOOD REASON, been a staple of the human diet for millenniums. Evidence found near Beijing, China, indicates prehistoric cave dwellers wrapped turnip ice; in ferns or wild onions and steamed them in wet leaves placed on flat stones in the fire. Cave paint created several thousand years later heap Aurignac, France, show turnips being boiled in clay pots.

Our Cro-Magnon ancestors apparently foraged these plants from the wild, but by 3500 B.C ... Sumerians in the valley of the Euphrates were cultivating the vegetable. In later, centuries; Greeks and Romans turned turnip cooking into a culinary art form, and forums were held to discuss the best ways to prepare the vegetable. Some epicures liked diem pickled; others preserved the roots in myrtle berries, honey and vinegar. One Roman method involved steaming turnips successively with cumin, rue and benzoin (a fragrant, balsamic resin). After being cooked for several hours, the vegetable was then mashed and simmered in honey, vinegar, gravy, boiled grapes and a little oil. Ancients might have considered this complicated dish delicious, but I see no reason to disguise the deliciously pungent taste of turnips. In fact, a favorite Saturday night supper of my south Georgia childhood consisted of cornbread crumbled into "potlikker"—in this case, the leftover liquid from cooking turnip greens. To me, it's worth putting in a turnip patch just to enjoy this down-home dish whenever I like, though turnips (Brassica rapa) and rutabagas (Brassica napobrassica) reward a grower in other ways.

First of all, they're very nutritious. A serving of turnip tops steamed in a little water, while containing only 20 calories, gives you 184 milligrams of calcium and 6,300 units of vitamin A, along with significant amounts of phosphorus, iron, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, as well as 69 milligrams of vitamin C. (The only vegetable containing more vitamin C is parsley.) Rutabaga greens, at 35 calories a serving, offer a little less of most of these nutrients, but add 167 milligrams of potassium. Eaten raw—and the tender leaves of both these vegetables are a tasty addition to salads—they are even better for you. The roots, while not quite as nutritious, still have the same vitamin content as potatoes and are richer in vitamin C.

Best of all, turnips and rutabagas are easy to grow and store and are relatively pest-free. Much of the crop's success depends on timing.

What Varieties of Turnips and Rutabagas to Plant

Like those other brassicas, cabbages and Brussels sprouts, turnips and rutabagas are cool-weather crops. The rutabaga is actually a horticultural cross between a turnip and a cabbage; it was created by Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in the seventeenth century, though it didn't arrive in this country until 1806. Rutabagas are commonly called fall or Swedish turnips or simply Swedes. (Because of their liking for cool, glacial soil, they're widely grown and eaten in Sweden and other northern countries.) Additionally, rutabagas can tolerate frost better than turnips, and the roots can be stored for up to a year.





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