Turnips are some of the most under-rated vegetables in the garden. They have a folksy, country vibe, and a reputation for being boring. In fact, turnips are anything but boring. These hardy, sustaining roots are one of your best options for nourishing, easy-to-store, cool-weather vegetables. Ready to start growing turnips today?
I like to really stock my pantry before winter. Those shelves get filled with jars of tomato sauce, pickles, and dilly beans. Those are tucked between little jam pots of flower jellies and berry preserves, and baskets of winter squashes and nourishing root crops. Best of all, in my winter pantry, turnips reign supreme.
I mean it! Nothing pairs with roasted rabbit like chopped turnips and carrots. Butter-roasted turnips with parsley are an autumnal delight. And try pairing pickled turnips with spicy curry for a wintertime meal that will warm everyone up quickly.
The truth is, we often think of turnips as basic and boring because they’re just so easy to grow. After all, turnips are one of the most low-maintenance crops you can put in. Like their spicy cousin, the radish, turnips don’t need much to thrive. In fact, farmers with poor soil and little time can put in turnips as a fail-safe crop.
But just because a vegetable is easy to grow, doesn’t mean it’s not also a joy to harvest. Throw some turnips into the ground and grow a winter panty you’ll love!
When it comes to growing turnips, remember that they come in diverse shapes and sizes. Some have a spicy, autumnal flavor, while others are mild and sweet. The most popular variety is, of course, purple top turnips. These spicy, white-fleshed turnips add a delicious, consistent flavor to any meal. But they’re not the only turnips out there.
Try this gorgeous turnip variety for a stunning addition to the dinner table. Bright red skin, creamy white flesh, and moderately spicy flavor make the Scarlet Queen unmistakable.
These pretty yellow globe turnips are delicious! And they look buttery and fresh in soups, stews, and side dishes. The Golden Ball has a mild flavor and moderately sized roots. It’s perfect for the Thanksgiving table.
Exactly as you would imagine it, the snowball grows into a bright, white ball of cool, sweet flavor. In addition, Snowballs are some of the quickest-growing turnips. You can usually harvest them about 6 weeks after planting!
Getting Started with Growing Turnips
Turnips are cool weather crops that grow best in the spring and fall. Additionally, most people don’t know that turnips are actually a part of the brassica family. So while we tend to think of them as oversized radishes, they’re actually more closely related to cabbages.
That means your turnips are going to want richer soil than the average radish. They can also handle more nitrogen than many root crops, making them ideal for manure-heavy gardens. Sow turnips in early spring and early fall for two harvests a year. In mild climates, sow radishes through the cool seasons for a consistent harvest.
Sow seeds directly into the soil. Turnips, like so many other root crops, hate being transplanted. You can sow your seeds as soon as the danger of frost is past. Start turnip seeds about 4 inches apart, as they germinate quickly and grow fast. Once there are a few true leaves, thin your turnips to give at least 6 inches of space between plants. Larger turnip varieties will need more space.
It’s important for turnips to grow quickly. Plants that take too long to produce large roots are generally tough and woody. You can use these tough roots to make stock, but that’s about all they’re good for. If you’ve planted your turnips in good soil, all you have to do is wait.
Water them regularly if the weather is dry, as drought turnips also tend to be tough as well. Don’t let the soil dry out completely, but don’t drown them either: remember that root crops can become pithy with too much water. One or two good soakings a week is usually adequate.
You can start harvesting turnips about 30 to 70 days after planting. If you’re planning multiple crops, you should bulk up the soil with composted manure and bone meal between plantings. Remember that these rooty brassicas really appreciate the extra nutrients.
If you have mild springs and long autumns, you can grow 2-4 rotational crops of turnips in one bed. If you harvest the greens as well as the roots, you’ll have a consistent supple of garden-fresh produce all through the growing season.
Like all brassicas, turnips are susceptible to slugs. Greedy slugs will happily munch away at the leaves and roots of your turnip plants. But if you trap them with beer, you can sustainably keep your garden slug free. Just dig a little hole and set a tin can half-full of beer in the hole. Keep the rim of the can just above the level of the soil.
Turnips are also susceptible to other brassica pests like cabbage white butterfly caterpillars. I use guinea hens to control these devouring caterpillars. Guineas are great at eating pests without damaging plants.
Club root used to be a common turnip disease, but many turnip varieties are now club root resistant. It’s a good idea to rotate your turnip bed each year, however, to keep club root from spreading.
Avoid planting turnips with other brassicas like cabbages, arugula, broccoli, and kale. Instead, let them share space with squashes, tomatoes, and radishes.
I like intercropping turnips with peas as well. This is because peas are great nitrogen fixers, meaning they help balance nitrogen levels in the soil. So turnips—which like nitrogen, but really need to grow in soil rich in phosphorus and potassium as well—can thrive. The peas continue to fix the soil for your turnips all through the growing season.
The Turnip Harvest
Harvesting turnips is easy. Like radishes and beets, just grasp right above the root and pull.
When you see the root peeking out over the soil, and it looks like a wide, strong top, pull it up. But don’t wait too long. It’s definitely preferable to harvest smaller roots that are still tender than larger roots that grew too long. The longer you leave your turnips in the ground after they reach maturity, the tougher they’ll be. If you find yourself consistently harvesting undersized roots, bulk up the phosphorus in your soil or give your plants more space to grow.
Don’t forget to harvest your turnip greens along with the roots for a double crop. Turnip greens are delicious. They’re very tender when young, so use the smallest leaves to top salads. Older leaves are a great substitute for kale in cooked-greens recipes.
A Pantry Full of Turnips
If you’re not used to cooking with a surplus of turnips, they can feel a little overwhelming. But don’t worry: they’ll soon become an essential item in your kitchen. Traditional Irish recipes are full of mashed and buttered turnip recipes, and these roots make a regular appearance in beef stews as well.
They pair well with potatoes, cooked greens, fresh herbs, and roasted meats. One of my favorite autumn meals involves a huge tray of roasted roots: beets, potatoes, turnips, onions, and garlic. Drizzle all the chopped roots with olive oil and sprinkle them with fresh herbs before roasting. You can pair the tray with anything from a green salad to a roasted duck.
I love to serve the tray with crumbled goat cheese, homemade pierogi, and borscht. It’s a great menu for lazy dinner parties because everything can be prepared in advance and then just warmed up on the stove or roasted in the oven with you talk!
Cooking with Turnip Leaves
Turnip leaves make a slightly mustardy addition to greens salads. Young greens have a mild, earthy flavor, similar in taste to young dandelion greens. Try sprinkling the young greens on top of a iceberg wedge-salad to add a unique twist.
You’ll almost always want to cook mature turnip greens. Add older greens to a minestrone soup in place of kale or Swiss chard. Or, sear them in butter with garlic and potatoes, then fill pierogis with the mixture.
Mature turnip greens can be a little bitter on their own. Use a little salt when you’re cooking them to counteract the bitterness. Sauteéing in butter or oil is another great way to mellow out your turnip greens.
Growing Turnips for Your Pantry
Growing turnips is easy! Few plants provide as hearty a harvest with so little effort. Like so many root crops, good soil and consistent moisture are all you really need to succeed with them. Best of all, they can store easily for 4 months in a root cellar, or 2 months in cool part of the pantry.
I layer my turnip roots with clean, dry hay in a wide basket, as the hay keeps the roots from condensing in the cool air. If you store them this way, in a dry, cool, dark area, your roots can keep well for over 4 months. These rugged vegetables will provide you with healthy, nutrient-dense greens during the growing season and a storeroom full of delicious, long-lasting roots after harvest.