I got turned on to turnips (Brassica rapa) rather late in life. I was visiting a farm in New Hampshire when the farmer pulled a ‘Hakurei’
white turnip from the ground and bit into it like an apple. The only turnips I had known up to that point were the mashed ones at Thanksgiving dinner. I tried it and was hooked. The texture was juicy and crunchy and the flavor sweet and mild.
While Southerns have enjoyed turnips as part of their traditional cooking, we Northeners are just getting turned on, too. Turnips are an efficient crop. You can eat the roots, stems and leaves and they all taste great in the right dishes. Use baby greens in salads or saute mature greens and stems in stir fries. The roots can be shredded raw in salads, or added to soups, stews or roasted vegetables.
If you’re wondering about the rutabaga (Brassica napus). It’s a cross between and turnip and a cabbage. Rutabaga has large, yellow fleshed roots with a sweet, nutty flavor and are used like potatoes mashed, boiled or added to soups and stews. It’s grown the same way as turnips.
When to Plant
Turnips like it cool, maturing with temperatures in the 60Fs. Sows seeds 4 weeks before your last frost date — April or early May. They’ll take about 50 days to mature.
Where to Plant
Turnips grow best in raised beds on well-drained soil. Remove any sticks and debris from the bed before planting that can inhibit root growth. Turnips can produce a crop with as little as 3- to 4-hours of sun, but you’ll get better roots if they’re grown in full sun.
How to Plant
Amend the raised bed with compost before planting. Sow seeds 2 inches apart in rows spaced 1 foot apart. Cover the small seeds lightly with garden soil or potting soil and keep well watered. Like radishes, turnips germinate quickly and should be up in a few days.
Care and Maintenance
Thin turnips to 4 inches apart when they’re 4 inches tall. Use the greens in salads. Keep the soil evenly moist and well weeded. Mulch with a layer of organic mulch, such as straw, after weeding and thinning to keep the crop growing strong. Unless the plants aren’t growing strong, additional fertilizer usually isn’t necessary.
To avoid diseases, such as root rot, rotate crops, not planting another cabbage family crop in this bed for 3 years. Watch for aphids feeding on young turnip leaves causing shotgun-like holes. Spray insecticidal soap to control them. Control flea beetles that feed on leaves and root maggots that feed on developing roots, by placing a floating row cover over the bed. This prevents the adult fly from laying eggs on the roots.
You can harvest turnips for weeks for a variety of uses. Harvest young greens when they are 4 inches tall for salads. Harvest the outer leaves, letting the inner leaves to grow and feed the developing root. Harvest young turnip roots when they are 2 inches in diameter for shredding raw in salads. Harvest larger roots (3- to 4-inches wide) for cooking. Don’t let turnips get much larger than this or they will get woody. Let turnips mature during cool weather and you’ll be treated with a sweet tasting root.
‘Hakurei’ is the white rooted, Japanese variety my farmer friend shared with me. ‘Purple Top White Globe’ is a traditional cooking variety with white roots and a purple top. ‘Scarlet Queen Hybrid’ has red stems and sweet tasting red skinned roots. ‘American Purple Top’ is a good rutabaga variety to try.
Excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.