Turnips are a white, cool weather root crop.
Cousin to rutabaga, radishes, and other members of the cabbage family, turnips (Brassica rapa) are grown for the bulbous taproot that looks more like a beet, except that it is white, and its nutrient rich leaves.
Fun turnip trivia: the pink, purple, red, or greenish color of a turnip’s shoulders is a result of being exposed to the sun.
Taste for turnips
Many people believe that they do not like turnips, but this is often because the turnips they tried were too old. Old turnips taste bitter. This is because of a self-defense chemical produced by many members of the cabbage family. Also, some individuals have inherited a pair of genes that make them extra sensitive to the bitterness, so don’t force anyone to try the fruits of these labors. It just might not be possible for them to enjoy the flavor. That being said, young, tender turnips do not contain as much of the bitterness, so harvest early and often! Also, consistent irrigation reduces the chance of your turnips becoming bitter.
Turnip leaves are a popular side dish in the southeast. Tender leaves are less bitter than older leaves. Bitterness can be reduced by pouring off the cooking water and replacing it with fresh water and reheating. Unlike rutabagas, which have a visible crown or neck between the taproot and the leaves, turnip leaves grow directly from the root.
How to grow turnips
Like other root crops, turnips prefer loose soil, but they are resilient plants. They can handle conditions that thwart more gentle crops. Here in the Bay Area, turnips can be planted February through April, and again in September and October. Seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep, directly into the garden. Seedlings should be thinned to 4 to 6 inches apart, when grown for roots, and 2 to 3 inches apart for greens. Depending on the variety planted, your turnip crop should be ready within 50 to 75 days. Tokyo turnips, which tend to be smaller, are harvestable after only 30 to 60 days!
The life of a turnip
Turnips are biennial plants, which means it takes them two years to from seed to seed. Most turnips grown in fields and gardens never get that chance. Planted in full sun or partial shade, first-year turnips put out roots and absorb as many nutrients as they can, storing them for the upcoming winter months. In the spring of a turnip’s second year, it puts out tall yellow flowers with seeds in pods that look like tiny pea pods.
Turnip pests and diseases
As a Brassica, turnips are subject to attack by caterpillars, whiteflies, cabbage loopers, Bagrada bugs, beet armyworms, and aphids. Aphids can also carry turnip mosaic, a viral disease common to Brassicas. Row covers can prevent damage, but only if they are installed before the problem starts.
Turnips have been grown for over 4,000 years. Pliny the Elder ranked turnips third only to cereals and beans as the most important crops. Turnips were also used in early experimentation with crop rotation.
Give turnips a try in your garden today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!