Growing Rutabaga Greens
Botanical Name: Brassica napus var. napobrassica
Although vegetable gardeners commonly grow rutabagas for the golden root bulbs that ripen in fall, the green leafy tops are edible as well. And while developing rutabaga plants need to be thinned throughout the growing season to achieve the best yield of mature roots, those “thinned” greens often get thrown away inadvertently instead of being collected and cooked. The smallest green leaves can even be added raw to salads.
Similar to turnip greens, to which they are closely related, rutabaga greens also have characteristics in common with cabbage, another near relative. That can be a headache for gardeners and cooks because it means the tops are attractive to the same range of insect pests that feed on both those crops: various beetles and worm and caterpillars, as well as aphids.
So in growing rutabaga greens it is prudent to nurture the plants with a foundation of healthy soil, plus even watering and a system of lightweight row covers. Strong plants are better able to resist pest damage than sickly plants. Consider this – paper wasps can go a long way toward pest control because they eat lots of cabbage worms, so let wasps share your garden.
Another natural deterrent, at least against aphids, is the lovely flowering nasturtium plant, which can be grown as a companion among the rutabagas (and also has edible components of its own).
To get the most enjoyment from homegrown rutabaga greens try planting all different types of rutabagas – American Purple Top, Joan, Laurentian Gilfeather, Macombers, and so on. That way the crop includes many gradations of flavor and texture. And those types mature at slightly different rates, so there will be a continuous supply of greens.
Let’s look at some ways to get the most out of rutabaga greens while still allowing the bulbs to mature. Rutabaga seeds are planted directly in the soil about half an inch apart, usually in mid-summer for a late fall harvest. The optimum distance between plants by the end of the season will be six to eight inches. So thinning must take place periodically to keep the plants from being crowded.
At the first thinning use the tender little shoots as toppings for salads or soups, or instead of lettuce in sandwiches. The next several thinnings will take place as the greens are considerably larger and with more distinctive leaves. Wash the leaves and cut off the roots. Steam or boil these greens with a ham bone or other flavoring.
When harvesting the greens from larger rutabagas cut off and discard any tough stems before chopping and cooking the leaves. Pluck just a few leaves from each plant, while the roots are still developing; don’t cut across the whole stem.
Rutabaga greens resemble turnip greens but the leaves are less “hairy” and rather more cabbage-like and smooth. Rutabaga greens have less of a tangy bite than either turnip greens or mustard greens. But enjoy them all in the colder months when other green vegetables are scarce in the garden.