Growing Turnip Greens

In many cultures, including the Southeast US, turnips are grown as much for their tasty, highly nutritious leaves, called “greens” as for their roots. Here are a few tips to get the most out of turnip greens.

Bunch of vibrant green turnip "cime di rapa". Italian cuisine

Photo by: Caporusso Vitantonio

Caporusso Vitantonio

Botanical Names: Brassica rapa

Turnips (Brassica rapa) are super-vegetables which are well-suited for home gardens because they grow very quickly in a wide range of soils and containers. Nutritious turnip roots are short, swollen stems that grow partly in the ground; however, many gardeners have long been growing turnip greens for their leaves alone; some varieties have been developed specifically for this.

Turnip leaves can be prepared exactly like spinach or its close mustard, kale, cabbage, and collards relatives, including in salads, soups, and stewed with pork and served with vinegar. The somewhat fuzzy leaves are extremely high in vitamins A, B, C, and K, folate, iron, calcium, and thiamine.  

How to Grow Turnip Greens

Sow seeds thinly over moist, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, and keep moist, especially in hot weather or the plants will turn bitter. The cool-weather plants will tolerate frosts, but get tough and bitter in hot weather; making them best planted in late spring and early summer, and again in late summer and fall.

Because the plants are ready to harvest within six or eight weeks, for the longest fresh harvest plant new seeds every two or three weeks. Those grown in cool weather, especially fall-planted and after a light frost, have a better flavor than those harvested in hotter weather.

When planting turnip greens only, no thinning is necessary, but for larger, sweeter roots, thin small plants leaving four or five inches between the older ones; the thinned plants are perfectly edible.

When studying how to plant turnip greens, learn about the common leaf insects in your area such as flea beetles, aphids, and cabbage moth caterpillars, which can be reduced by covering plants with a row cover fabric; if necessary, use an organic spray on undersides of leaves when pests first appear.

Recommended Varieties

If you are growing turnips just for greens, any variety will do, and can be harvested as soon as they get larger leaves. Here are some of the most popular, readily-available turnips grown especially for their fast, tender, sweet greens.

Seven Top does not make a large root, instead putting all its energy into its large crop of dark green leaves about 40 days after the seeds sprout. Alltop has a small root but large bunches of leaves which are easy to start harvesting within five weeks of planting. They have very fast regrowth and high yields.

Topper is a favorite variety to grow mostly for their greens. Harvest can start within five weeks from planting seed, and because they are slow to bolt in to flower, the plants continue to produce leaves for a long time.

One of the most popular old turnip varieties is Shogoin, which if thinned makes fist-size or larger pure white roots. However it is a preferred for its tender leaves, mild enough to eat raw in salads, even after the roots begin to form.

Harvesting Turnip Greens

Though you can eat the small plants that are thinned early on, the best greens are at least four inches long; young leaves are best for salads, while older leaves usually need cooking. Snip leaves carefully, taking only about a third from each plant. Plants will quickly grow more leaves, and you can harvest until the plants start to die, begin to flower, or hot weather makes the leaves bitter.

Because the leaves are slightly hairy, rinse them immediately after harvest and again before preparing cooking. Shake off excess moisture, and store in air tight bags in the refrigerator for up to three or four days; they lose flavor and quality quickly.  

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