Turnips may not be the most thrilling vegetable you can grow, but they have great flavor and are a very reliable crop. You can harvest them much more quickly than other root crops like carrots or potatoes.
Once thought of as a “poor man’s food,” we now know that turnips are incredibly nutritious. The roots can be used as a substitute for potatoes and the greens are also edible and nutrient-rich.
Here’s a complete guide to growing turnips, including pests you might run into and how to harvest and store your crop.
All About the Humble Turnip
Turnips (Brassica rapa) have been a staple crop in many countries for at least 3000 years. In fact, they have helped several countries (including Germany and Great Britain) avoid famine during wartime.
The turnip plant belongs to the mustard family (Brassicaceae) and is related to other familiar vegetables like kale, cabbage, mustard greens, and collard greens.
Plants can grow 12-18 inches tall with long, light green leaves. The leaves are slightly hairy or fuzzy and edible. They have a taste similar to mustard greens and are at their best when still small.
The roots are radish-like in appearance but typically larger. They are most commonly white or yellow and often have purple or green tops where the roots stick out above ground. The flavor is starchy, sweet, and mildly spicy when raw. Roots lose some spiciness and taste more sweet and nutty when cooked.
Turnips are a great vegetable to grow at home, although they are very underrated. Their flavor is sometimes described as a cross between a radish and a cabbage with an added sweetness.
Turnip plants are biennial, which means they won’t flower until their second year of growth. Most gardeners grow them as an annual, but they will develop small yellow flowers if left to bloom.
Quick Growing Tips
Almost any gardener can try their hand at growing turnips, since they are an annual crop in USDA hardiness zones 2-9. Only those in hotter climates may struggle.
Here are some quick growing tips to get you started on the right track:
- Turnips are a cool weather crop and grow best if temperatures stay under 75°F. Don’t try to grow them in the hot months of summer, or you’ll probably be disappointed.
- Because they are closely related to other Brassicas, don’t grow turnips in a spot where you recently grew cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.
- Like many other root crops, turnips don’t transplant well. The best way to grow them is to start them from seed directly in your garden.
- You can expect to harvest turnip greens in about a month and the roots in about two months. Keep in mind that if you harvest a lot of greens, you’ll likely end up with smaller roots. You may want to designate some plants for a leaf harvest and others for a root harvest, or go easy on picking the greens.
Best Turnip Cultivars
There’s usually only one standard variety of turnip sold in the store, but you have a lot more choice as a home gardener. You can choose a cultivar that will give you lots of greens, large roots, or one that does both.
Turnips come in far greater variety than you’ll find at the grocery store. You can choose from white, yellow, or red varieties or grow some just for the greens.
Here are some of the best options:
- ‘Purple Top White Globe’– This is one of the best all-around turnip varieties. Roots average 3-4 inches in diameter, and leaf production is great as well. The main color is white with the part sticking out of the soil turning purple.
- ‘Golden Globe’ or ‘Golden Ball’– Both of these are great yellow turnip varieties with golden skin and good, sweet flavor. Both grow 3-4 inches in diameter and are ready for harvest in about 2 months.
- ‘Scarlet Queen’ or ‘Hirosaki Red’– Both of these varieties are red with white interiors. They resemble radishes, but have the sweet-spicy turnip flavor. Great used raw in salads or cooked. The stems are also red.
- ‘Hakurei’– This is a pure white turnip that matures early, has great flavor raw, and is best when harvested at a 2-inch diameter. Leaves are hairless and have good flavor raw or cooked.
- ‘All Top’– This variety is grown only for its greens. They can be picked as early as 35 days after planting and can be harvested multiple times during the season. Roots are inedible, so don’t expect to harvest them.
- ‘Seven Top’– This is another good variety if you want to harvest greens rather than roots. Leaves are lush, nutritious, and equally good raw or cooked.
Growing Turnips from Seed
When to Plant
The two best times for planting turnip seeds are spring and fall. Both of these take advantage of cool weather to give your crop the best conditions to grow in.
Turnips need cool weather to grow in and will struggle in the heat. You can get two crops in by planting in both spring and late summer, or choose one planting time that works best for you.
In spring, you can sow seeds as soon as the ground is workable. This is usually 2-3 weeks before your last average frost date.
In the fall, sow seeds in late summer. You can calculate 60-70 days before your first average frost to make sure that your turnips will mature before the ground freezes. Growing turnips in the autumn has the added benefit of fewer pests being present that might ruin your crop.
If you live in a warmer climate with milder winters, you can also sow turnip seeds in the fall for a late fall or early winter crop.
Where to Plant + Growing Conditions
Most gardeners grow turnips in the ground but they can also be grown in containers if you’re short on space or want them to be convenient to your kitchen.
Pick a location that gets full sun. Plants will tolerate part shade but will be at their best with at least 6 hours of sunlight each day.
Root crops need a light, loamy soil in order to grow well. Clear out rocks and debris that might cause misshapen roots, and improve clay soil before growing turnips, since they won’t do well in the dense nature of clay.
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Turnips also need soil that is well drained so that the roots won’t rot. Mix in compost or other amendments to improve drainage if needed. If you have heavy clay, you might want to consider planting in raised beds to get the good drainage that you’ll need.
Adding compost before planting is also a good way to add nutrients to your soil. This gives the turnip roots something to feed on as they grow.
Finally, it’s a good idea to till or break up the top 12-15 inches of soil before sowing your seeds. This loosens it so that the roots can easily grow and expand. If you prefer no-till gardening, simply rake the top few inches so that there’s a smooth surface for planting seeds.
How to Plant Turnip Seeds
Once you have your spot picked out and your soil prepared, it’s time to plant your seeds!
Sow your turnip seeds in rows that are about 12 inches apart. Seeds should be planted about ½ inch deep and 2-3 inches apart.
Make sure you mark where you planted your turnips so you don’t put anything else on top of them, and water that area well. Keep it damp as the seeds germinate, which should only take about 4-7 days.
Once your seedlings sprout, let them grow until they get 3-4 inches tall. Then, thin them to a spacing of 4-6 inches. If you are only growing them for the greens, you can leave them at a spacing of 2-3 inches.
Make sure you space your plants far enough apart so that they can develop good roots. A good rule of thumb to go by is to leave enough room in between each seedling for them to grow to the size you want to harvest.
The easiest way to thin your turnips is to snip off unwanted sprouts at ground level. This keeps you from disturbing the roots of the other plants, and you can eat the thinned sprouts as microgreens!
Caring for Your Turnips
Turnips are very low maintenance once they get going. If you prepared your soil the right way and planted them during cool weather, you’ve already given them a good start.
The best thing you can do for them is to keep the soil consistently moist (but not soggy). They need about 1 inch of water each week, so if they aren’t getting enough from rain, you’ll need to give them supplemental water.
You can make gardening life easier on yourself by mulching around your growing turnips to keep moisture in the soil and weeds down.
It’s better to opt for a lightweight mulch like straw or pine needles. Something heavier can encourage root rot. Slugs are also drawn to mulch, so wait until the weather starts to dry out before applying it.
Fertilizing turnips is usually unnecessary. They grow quickly, and the best way to fertilize them is to apply compost when you plant them.
Common Pests and Problems
Turnips can be affected by many of the same problems as other Brassica crops. If you plant them in late summer rather than spring, you may be able to avoid some of the worst pests.
You aren’t the only one who wants to eat your turnips. You may have to fend off deer and rabbits, especially when your plants are small and tender. Insects can be a problem as well but can be controlled by planting under row covers.
The most common disease problems are fungal ones: powdery mildew, downy mildew, and clubroot. To avoid fungal diseases, it’s important to ensure that your soil has good drainage and plants are spaced far enough apart to allow for good airflow.
Common insects that attack turnips include aphids, flea beetles, root maggots, and various caterpillars.
Because they have a quick growing season, pests may not have enough time to do serious damage to your crop. However, if any become a severe problem, try growing your turnips under floating row covers to keep insects out.
Rabbits and deer are bigger pests that may do damage to turnips, especially when they are small and tender. Use fencing or a homemade deer repellent to keep them out.
How to Harvest Turnips
Picking the Greens
Turnip greens are usually ready to harvest somewhere around a month after planting. They are edible at any stage but have the best flavor and the most tenderness when they are still small.
You can harvest greens either by cutting them all off at once (in which case you won’t get a root harvest) or by picking a few of the outer leaves and letting the inner ones keep growing.
If you plan to harvest turnip roots later, only do one leaf harvest or a few light ones throughout the season. Your plants will need their leaves in order to have the energy to produce full-size roots.
You can harvest both greens and roots from your turnip plants. Make sure you trim the greens off after pulling up the roots, or they will keep drawing energy from the roots, causing them to shrivel.
You can snap leaves off an inch or so above the root, or use a pair of sanitized hand clippers to snip them off cleanly.
Pulling Up the Roots
Turnip roots will be ready to harvest as early as 5 weeks after planting for early types or 6-10 weeks after planting for later types. Make sure you check on the days to maturity for your specific variety.
You can harvest turnips at just about any size. The smaller ones will be the most tender and best for eating raw. Larger ones will be meatier and cook well. However, don’t leave them in the ground too long or they will start getting woody.
If you have loose soil, you can simply go through and pull up turnips that are ready by grabbing them at the base of the stem.
If you have heavier soil, it’s best to loosen underneath your turnips with a shovel before pulling them out. Otherwise, you may end up snapping off the leaves and leaving the roots stuck in the ground.
A light frost will give turnips a sweeter flavor, so you can let them go through one in the fall. However, make sure you harvest them all before a hard freeze.
How to Store Turnips
Like other root vegetables, turnips can be stored for several months in the right conditions. You can keep them with other roots, but avoid storing them next to apples or other fruits.
Storing the Greens
Turnip greens are best used as soon as possible after harvesting. You can store them in your refrigerator by placing unwashed leaves in a plastic bag and keeping them in the crisper drawer. They should last 5-7 days this way.
Another option is to either blanch or cook the greens and freeze them.
Storing the Roots
Turnip roots can be stored for 3-4 months in the right conditions. Before storing them, remove the greens right after harvest. Leave the roots unwashed, and make sure they are dry before putting them in storage.
A root cellar is the ideal place for storing root vegetables, but you can also use the crisper drawer in your refrigerator. Try to keep them in a temperature range of 32-40°F.
If you are storing them in a root cellar, pack them into buckets or boxes filled with a medium like damp sand, sawdust, or peat moss. Leave space in between each root and place packing material in between any layers.
In the refrigerator, store the roots in plastic bags with a damp paper towel or cloth. You want them to have enough moisture to keep from shriveling but not too much or they will rot.
Check on your turnips every so often and remove any that look like they are going bad.
Enjoying Your Turnip Harvest
Growing turnips in your own garden is a great way to discover this often overlooked vegetable.
You can enjoy them raw or cook them many different ways. Turnips work great as a potato substitute and can be roasted, mashed, pureed, glazed, baked, and even stir-fried.
Once you’ve successfully grown a few turnip crops, try out some other root vegetables like beets, carrots, rutabaga, or radishes!