Growing Turnips: The Complete Guide to Plant, Grow and Harvest Turnips

People don't give turnips the love they deserve. They're pushed to the side while other root veggies like potatoes and carrots get all the attention. I think they're the victim of being cooked wrong too many times, and they should get more credit. Cooked well, turnips have a glorious earthy flavor that's a bit sweeter and less starchy than a potato. They're also easy to grow, nutritious and you can store them for a good long while. They're ideal for small gardens too as they take up relatively little room.

I enjoy growing turnips every year and find that as long as I've prepared the soil properly and provide them with enough water, they're fuss-free compared to other vegetables. Their vibrant coloring elevates the plate, and while they have a reputation among kids as one of the yucky veggies, I think they're delicious.

Turnips have been valued for their health benefits for centuries. In fact, the Romans and Greeks considered them important for both human and animal consumption. Convinced? Here's how to get started with growing turnips.

Turnip Varieties

Harvested purple top turnips

Harvested purple top turnips

  • Purple Top – This is the most common variety in home gardens. It's simple to grow, and you can harvest it about 50 days after planting. If you pick the leaves young enough, they're edible too. For maximum sweetness, harvest them when they're 3-inches in diameter.
  • Scarlet Queen – Scarlet Queen is slightly flatter than Purple Top. When cut open, they're gorgeous thanks to the lovely crisp white flesh against the red skin. I cook both the bulb and leaves together.
  • Tokyo Cross – These beautiful white globes are bred for faster maturity (30 days in some areas) and are less likely to bolt. They can be left to grow big, but you still want to pick them before they're bigger than a tennis ball. This turnip was a winner in the All American Selections.
  • Market Express – This is a quick growing turnip and can be harvested in as little as 30 days for baby size and around 50 days for larger. Plant Market Express with a turnip that takes longer to mature, so you get a full season of harvest.
  • Golden Ball – Also called Orange Jelly Turnip, this is an heirloom variety from France dating back to 1854. The flesh is yellow or orange depending on your soil type. Harvest them when they reach golf ball size. They're slightly sweet and has an almond aftertaste – perfect for cooking with carrots!
  • Gilfeather – This is a Vermont heirloom variety with a long history. It's not the prettiest of turnips, but one of the nicest tasting. It has a creamy white flesh that is sweet and mild.
  • Just Right – This is a hybrid with a smooth, mild flavor. Just Right won the AAS award for the first turnip to hold its quality when allowed to grow large.

Other types

If you love turnip greens, there are some varieties you can grow solely for their tops, and the roots are inedible. These varieties include:

  • Topper
  • Seven Top
  • All Top

How to Plant Turnips

Zones

Turnips do well in zones 3-9.

When to Plant Turnips

Turnips love cool weather so you can plant them in the spring or fall.

For a late spring bounty, plant directly in the garden when you are able to work the soil, about 2-3 weeks prior to the last frost if you have predictable winters.

If you want a fall harvest, plant them late in the summer, about 70 days before the first frost date. You can also plant quick maturing turnips in the early fall for a late season harvest if winter comes late in your area.

How to Sow

Sow directly into the soil. I've tried transplanting from seedlings and failed miserably.

Plant directly in a line to a depth of about half an inch. Sow about 4-6 inches apart with 12-24 inches between rows. Germination can be as quick as 6-10 days. Consider covering young growing turnips with cloches if birds and slugs are raiding the tops.

Sun Requirements

Full sun is perfect for turnips. Being a root crop, they're protected under the soil from scorching as long as you don't allow it to dry out too much. They can also handle part shade.

Soil Requirements

Turnips are brassicas and root vegetables, so they need loose, fertile soil with good drainage. I add a layer of compost or well-rotted manure to the earth 2 weeks prior to planting. Make sure you loosen and amend the soil at least 6-8 inches deep.

How to Care for Turnips

Watering

Water turnips regularly. If the roots are allowed to get too dry and then get a lot of moisture, they will crack and split. Lack of water also causes smaller, bitter, woody roots.

At the same time, you don't want to give too much water. I check for dryness at the roots by carefully digging a little under the surface near the plant. If it's dry underneath, I water. Plan on giving about an inch of water each week.

Mulch the plants as well to keep in moisture.

Weeding

As with all root vegetables, keep the garden free of weeds, so the roots of the weeds don't interfere with the growing turnips under the ground.

Fertilizer

Give growing turnips a side dressing of compost in the middle of the growing season. If you see signs of starvation such as yellowing leaves or poor growth, feed with an all-purpose liquid fertilizer.

Mulching

Growing turnips surrounded by mulch

Growing turnips surrounded by mulch

Bolting

Growing turnips can bolt if they get stressed, either from too little water, poor soil or too much heat. To prevent bolting, make sure you give them fertile soil that drains well. Plan your planting to avoid the hottest times of the year. Be sure that your growing turnips get plenty of consistent moisture.

If your plants do bolt, you can do one of two things. Either pick the plant right away and eat the leaves and root as it is. Or you can allow the plant to bolt and save the seeds to plant for the next year. Snipping off the seeds won't reverse bolting, so don't bother.

Common Problems and Solutions for Growing Turnips

Growing turnips is generally a fuss-free proposition, but sometimes problems can occur. Here are a few things to keep an eye on.

Anthracnose

This fungus results in small, gray lesions that can eventually kill leaves. If the fungus gets into the root, it will cause it to rot. Control weeds, rotate crops and don't overwater plants to help prevent anthracnose from taking hold. If things get serious, you can apply an organic fungicide.

Alternia Leaf Spot

This disease causes yellow spots that develop a black, sooty center that causes leaves to eventually wilt. It can be common in warm, wet areas. Rotate crops, destroy weeds, control aphids, and only water at the base, not on top of the plants.

Damping Off

If seedlings collapse and die back, this is caused by damping off. It's a fungus that thrives in the soil when humidity is high. The best way to avoid it is to ensure your soil has good drainage and to keep your tools clean.

Aphids

Aphids on a plant leaf

Aphids on a plant leaf

If you have leaves that curl under and are yellow or deformed, check for aphids. Aphids usually live on the underside of the leaves. They can cause black sooty mold thanks to their excrement called honeydew. Use a strong blast of water to knock them off plants and use neem oil or organic pyrethrum to control.

Cabbage Maggot

You'll know this pest is present if there are tunnels in the surface of the root and your plants wilt with no sign of insects on them. The adult fly lays eggs in the soil, and the larvae emerge to feed on the plant. Use lime or wood ash to get rid of them.

Downy Mildew

If you have downy mildew, the leaves of your turnip will have a grey powder, which will eventually turn the leaves yellow and kill the plant. Downy mildew, also known as powdery mildew is a common pest, so avoid it by giving plenty of air flow between plants by spacing them appropriately. Seek out resistant strains when buying seeds.

Black Leg

If you see a black streak on the plant, the growth is stunted and the stem rots close to the soil surface you may have the black leg fungus. You will also see small black spots that grow bigger. Caught early enough, you can remove infected leaves and spray with an organic fungicide. To prevent, rotate crops and control weeds.

Harlequin Bug or Stink Bug

Harlequin beetle

Harlequin beetle

Stink bugs are shield-shaped bugs that literally suck the life out of your plants. Most of these pests drop off the plant when they see you reach for them. Squash them, then look for egg clusters and squash those too. To avoid them, ensure you clear away all piles of vegetation where they over-winter.

Cutworms

These are little grey grubs that chew at the stems and roots. They curl up under the surface of the soil. I use wood ash sprinkled around the plants to dehydrate them. Also be sure to clear away all weeds.

Blister Beetles

Blister beetle on a plant leaf

Blister beetle on a plant leaf

If your growing turnips are being eaten and the plant is slowly defoliated, it may be blister beetles. They can be black, metallic or grey. Like stink bugs, squash the adults. I've found the best knock down spray for these bugs is organic pyrethrum.

Early Blight or Cercospora

This is a fungal disease spread by heavy rain or humid conditions. You'll see small yellow spots on both sides of the leaves, which turn into larger grey splotches. Weed thoroughly and don't water turnips overhead to avoid this disease.

Clubroot

Clubroot is another fungal disease manifested by yellowing leaves, but you will definitely know if you have this by checking the root of your turnips. They will be misshapen and clubbed or rotting. The only option is to remove the turnips and destroy them. Ensure you rotate your garden plants regularly, and plant resistant varieties.

Turnip Mosaic

The turnip mosaic virus is usually spread by aphids, so keep them away to protect your plant. If you have it, you'll see ring spots that turn brown and eventually become surrounded by necrotic lesions. Plant resistant varieties and keep weeds away from growing turnips.

Companion Plants for Turnips

Some people say that you can plant turnips next to anything. I have found the best ones are:

  • Peas
  • Cabbage
  • Nasturtium
  • Bush Beans
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Vetch
  • Lettuce
  • Swiss Chard
  • Cauliflower
  • Radish
  • Celery
  • Tomato

Don't plant turnips next to potatoes.

How to Harvest Turnips

Seeds

If you leave growing turnips long enough, they'll bolt to seed, which can be a good thing if you want to save a few for next year. Choose a couple of plants to leave in the ground. Let them flower in the spring and allow the seed pods to turn brown.

Snip the pods off and dry them indoors in brown paper bags. When they are dry, break them open. Store seeds in a paper envelope.

Leaves

Pick small tender leaves for salads. Slightly larger leaves can be cooked in dishes or wilted in a pan. If the leaves are too big, they are usually bitter and not worth eating.

Roots

The roots are ready for harvest after 5-6 weeks for early varieties and 6-10 for standard types.

Harvest turnips when they are the size of a golf ball to a tennis ball. Some turnips are tasty when allowed to grow large, but check that's the case with your variety. To harvest, dig around the root to loosen it and then pull it gently out of the soil.

Storage

Consume the leaves when you pick them because they will wilt rapidly. If you do want to store them, wash thoroughly and place in a plastic bag or cloth wrap in the fridge. I have kept them this way for up to four days.

You can store the root in the fridge for up to two weeks. Turnips store well in a root cellar or cool basement, where you can keep them for months. Place unwashed turnips in a single layer covered in straw. Check them regularly to make sure they aren't going bad.

Turnips and other veggies on a table

Turnips and other veggies on a table

You can eat turnips in so many ways. Soups, stews, fried, boiled, sautéed, roasted and eaten raw in salads. Don't be afraid to experiment. Who knows, you may even convert the kiddos. Do you have any great recipes to share with us on how to use your turnip harvest?

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