Botanical Name: Brassica napus var. napobrassica
Growing a plentiful rutabaga crop from seed costs just pennies a plant – pennies a pound – and brings several other rewards. The edible green tops are mustardy-good when cooked, the smooth golden flesh mashes up well with other root crops and with meats, and an over-abundance of rutabaga can help feed backyard livestock if there’s just too much to cook.
Rutabaga seeds remain viable, that is, able to germinate, for as long as four years, so any unused seed can be stored in cool, dark conditions and held for another season. Most seed packets for home gardeners typically contain 100 seeds and cost just a dollar or two by mail order or at garden centers, although the American Purple Top rutabaga may cost even less: just a few dollars for nearly 1,000 seeds.
Figure on planting seeds from 1/2 inch to one inch apart, later thinning to six or eight inch spacing. That means a 100-seed packet will easily plant a five-foot row and eventually produce 15 to 20 pounds of rutabagas.
The mostly underground rutabaga is called a biennial plant because it takes two years to grow completely enough to produce seed. The first year is when gardeners usually harvest their rutabagas for eating in fall and winter, while growth is tougher and more spindly the second year.Then flowers and seeds appear.
So real “do it yourself” gardeners may choose to save their own rutabaga seed from second year plants, rather than buying seeds.
Here’s the method: During the first year, harvest most of the ripening rutabagas when they measure between two and six inches across and use them for cooking. However, let a few of the best plants stay in the ground all winter. Use a heavy blanket of mulch to protect them.
In spring, move aside the mulch and let the reemerging rutabaga plants develop their flowers and their seed heads. Use sticks to anchor the seed heads, tying the stems to the sticks so they don’t flop onto the ground. While seeds are developing cover them with cheesecloth, muslin, a paper bag, or other protective device to deter birds. Then promptly take the seed heads indoors to label and store.
Planting rutabaga seeds for a fall harvest means putting them into well-prepared sunny ground in mid-summer, after springtime salad greens and other tender crops have finished growing. Plantseeds about 1/2 inch deep and supply adequate water throughout the growing season.
Rutabaga plants have many garden companions, and can be planted near such plants as cilantroand nasturtium, beets and carrots, spinach and lettuce, onion and dill. Even tomatoes work well in the garden with rutabaga.