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Backyard Gardener: Growing turnips in your garden

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and gardeners! Start planning now for your fall garden. Many of our cool season vegetable can be planted in the upcoming weeks for harvest into early winter. Vegetable such as kale, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts do great in cool weather. A fall favorite in the Valley is turnips, which I will discuss in this week’s column.

Turnips (Brassica rapa) are members of the Cruciferae or mustard family and are a great selection for the fall garden. They produce well, the seed is inexpensive, and they can tolerate some pretty cold temperatures. The greens and the root bulb when harvested at 2-3 inches in diameter) can be eaten. Many people enjoy the root’s crisp and zesty flavor.

Turnips have been grown for centuries for human food and are a popular crop for livestock feed. The roots can be stored for a fairly long period of time in cold storage conditions. My grandmother would boil turnips and mix them in with mashed potatoes for a little extra zing. I enjoy peeling and eating fresh turnips. Most varieties have a white flesh and mustard-like flavor while their relatives like the Rutabaga (Swedish turnips) tend to be somewhat larger, sweeter and less strongly flavored than turnips.

Turnips are actually a biennial, native to the Scandinavian Peninsula, Russia and Siberia. Gardeners can plant them from mid-August until late September. Turnips are a cool-season crop and will make their best root growth during mild (40 to 60 degrees F) temperatures. Early maturing varieties of turnips can be ready to harvest in 40 days and late varieties may take up to 75 days.

I recommend growing turnips for the fall garden because hot weather may result in tough and bitter tasting turnips. Keep in mind if you are growing turnips for root development to hold off on the nitrogen. Provide good compost, aged manure or a balanced commercial fertilizer.

Turnips need well drained soils and work great in raised beds. The seeds are very small and should be sown 1/2 inch deep about 1 inch apart in the rows. Space rows about 12 to 15 inches apart for uniform growth and greater ease of handling at harvest.

Once plants are 4 to 6 inches high thin those to 6 to 8 inches for plenty space for root development. Thinned plants make excellent cooked greens and may be tender enough for salads.

Turnips are excellent feed for livestock. The tops and bulbs are consumed by sheep and cattle and are high in energy and protein. Sow about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of seed per acre for fall and early winter grazing.

“Purple Top” is by far the most common grown variety in the United States, but there are many to choose from, including varieties grown just for greens. “Golden Ball” (60 days and yellow flesh), “Market Express” (38 days), “Royal Crown” (52 days), “Scarlet Queen” (45 days, bright scarlet root), “Tokyo Cross” (35 days), and “White Knight” (75 days) are a few to choose from. “Alltop” and “Seven Top” are used for greens only.

Turnips can be afflicted by some of the same problems as other members of the cabbage group. Several species of leaf-feeding caterpillars can eat the foliage and cutworms can sever the seedling. Aphids and flea beetles may attack the foliage.

Turnip tops can be harvested from a very early stage for greens. Turnip roots can be harvested for bunching when they are 2 to 3 inches in diameter (about the size of a tennis ball).

Turnip leaves can be harvested as single leaves, picked one at a time, or by several cuttings of the tops, taking care to avoid growing points or by cutting all tops at one time. If there is going to be an extremely hard freeze, make sure to harvest bulbs or they may suffer damage.

Don’t let the bulbs get too big or they will turn pithy. Turnips and turnip greens are a low-calorie, healthy source of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber. Turnip greens can be sauted or boiled and should be cooked until tender. Wash the bulbs and greens well prior to cooking.

Looking for more information? Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office 304-424-1960 or my e-mail jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

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