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.

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.”

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