Growing Turnips

For thousands of years, colorful turnips and their leaves have been an easy-to-grow staple cool-weather vegetable with few pests or problems.

Freshly Harvested Turnips

Freshly Harvested Turnips

The turnip plant (Brassica rapa) is an ancient vegetable grown in cool weather for its short, enlarged edible lower stem and leaves, both for human consumption and livestock feed.

Photo by: Shutterstock/Elena Koromyslova

Shutterstock/Elena Koromyslova

Botanical Names: Brassica rapa, Brassica napobrassica

The turnip plant (Brassica rapa) is an ancient vegetable grown in cool weather for its short, enlarged edible lower stem and leaves, both for human consumption and livestock feed.

The swollen turnip root, really an enlarged stem, is very high in fiber, Vitamins A and C, and the same cancer-fighting compounds found in cabbage and broccoli. They are eaten raw, stewed, roasted, boiled, and mashed, often with other root crops. Turnip leaves or greens, high in vitamins A, B, C, and K, folate, iron, calcium, and thiamine, are cooked and eaten like spinach or kale.

How to Grow Turnips

Turnips are biennials grown as annuals and eaten while young, usually harvested within six or eight weeks. Because they have the best quality and flavor during cool weather, they are usually planted in late spring and, where seasons are longer or summertime hot, again in late summer fora fall and winter crop.

Popular turnip varieties include spicy Purple Top, Royal Globe, Just Right, Golden Ball, Tokyo Express, Market Express, Shogoin, and the especially mild, nearly apple-flavored Hakurei. Alltop, Topper, and Seven Top are grown mostly for their tops.

Sow seeds directly atop well-prepared, moist, fertile soil; if the soil is heavy clay or rocky, add compost at least six inches deep. Lightly rake the area to cover the tiny seeds no more than a quarter of an inch or so deep, and water gently to start their sprouting. If the soil is warm, seeds should sprout within a week or two.

When growing turnips just for greens, no thinning is necessary, but for larger, sweeter roots, it is crucial to thin plants three to six inches apart; small thinned plants can be cooked and eaten. Reduce root and leaf insect problems by covering plants with a row cover fabric, or using organic sprays on undersides of leaves when pests first appear.

Harvest greens when they’re large enough to pick, leaving young ones to grow for other harvests. Small roots, one to three inches in diameter, are the most tender. In mild weather they can be protected with mulch and left in the ground, or dug and, after removing leaves, stored for a few weeks in the refrigerator or for several months in a cool, dark cellar.

Hopelessly Naïve Turnips

By the way, in an unfortunate urban/rural rivalry, turnip is sometimes applied to unsophisticated or naïve rural people, especially when being taken advantage of by con artists. The savvy I’m-not-a-fool response, similar to “I wasn’t born yesterday,” became “I didn’t just ride in on a turnip truck.” Then in the 1980s, when guests made outrageous claims, late-night TV host Johnny Carson (who was raised in Midwestern farm country) popularized the phrase “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.”

Next Up

Growing Yellow Turnips

Turnips with yellow flesh are neither hard to find nor hard to grow, though the much more common cousins are very similar in taste and texture.

Growing White Turnips

Turnips with white roots are both easy to grow and valued for their tenderness and sweetness, with some compared with apples for their lack of classic turnip tanginess.

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.

Turnip Seeds

Sowing and saving tiny turnip seeds is fun, easy, and helps you grow some of the most interesting heirloom varieties for planting year after year.

Turnip Plants

Turnips have a rich history and interesting health benefits, and can be grown easily in spring or fall home gardens.

Types of Turnips

Turnip varieties go way beyond the standard old Purple Top and white Tokyo Cross, to include surprising range of sizes, shapes, colors, flavors of both roots and leafy greens, and time they take from seed to table.

Purple Top Turnips

Varieties of turnips with white roots topped with purple are among the most popular of all, and are easy to grow in small spaces in home gardens.

When to Plant Turnips

Turnips are cool-weather plants that can be sown in late winter, spring, or late summer to give them the two months they need to mature before it gets too hot or freezes.

When to Harvest Turnips

Turnips can be pulled and eaten any time after they start growing really well but are completely mature and ready to harvest within six or eight weeks of planting. They can be stored for weeks or even months if harvested correctly.

How to Store Turnips

While turnip greens should be consumed within a few days of harvest, turnip roots can be stored for days, weeks, or even months with the right harvesting and preparation.

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