How to Grow Turnips

Photo: Abingdon Farmers Market [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

They may not be colorful, vibrant, or particularly interesting vegetables, but learn how to grow turnips and you'll find that these often-overlooked vegetables have a lot to offer.

A popular staple since ancient times, turnips have tender potato-like roots that are mild when cooked and can be mashed, baked, boiled, and added to soups and stews. They're rich in fiber, vitamin C and vitamin B6 and help promote colon and lung health.

In addition to the edible roots, turnip greens are a nutritious and zesty treat packed with calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K and folate. Sprinkle turnip greens with lemon juice and let them sit for five minutes before cooking to activate beneficial enzymes that are thought to fight cancer, provide cardiovascular and digestive support and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Turnips can be planted in the spring for an early summer harvest, or in late summer for harvest before the first frost. Like most other root vegetables, turnips do well when planted with carrots and radishes as well as onions and peas. Turnips thrive in cool weather but prefer soil temperatures to be 60 degrees or above. In the fall, a light frost makes them taste sweeter.

Types of turnips

Summer turnips, as turnips are often called to distinguish them from rutabagas, have squat, purple bulbs and white flesh with frilly greens. Varieties include Golden Ball, Royal Crown, Scarlet Queen and White Knight. They can be grown either in spring or fall.

pile of rutabagas
Although they're a different vegetable, rutabagas are so similar to turnips, they're often called 'winter turnips.'. Pavels Rumme/Shutterstock

Rutabagas are technically a different vegetable altogether, but they are so similar to turnips that they are often referred to as "winter turnips" and are used interchangeably in recipes. These root vegetables have large, firm beige to yellow bulbs and the greens are rounder and more blue than those of the summer turnip. Rutabagas can withstand a freeze and store well over the winter into spring. Some varieties include Altasweet, American Purple Top, Laurentian and Pike.

How to plant turnips

  • Choose a sunny location with loose, well-drained, rich soil and and create rows in the soil 2 feet apart.
  • Plant turnip seeds 1⁄2 inch deep, 4 to 6 inches apart. If sowing only for the greens, sprinkle as many as 20 seeds per foot into the soil. Seeds germinate in 2 to 5 days.
  • Water the soil after planting and keep moist, but not waterlogged. Turnip plants that don't get enough water will become tough and woody.
  • Feed turnip plants with natural fertilizer containing potassium and phosphorous, such as compost tea, for good root development. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers like manure, which can give turnips an unpleasant flavor.
  • Keep the soil pH above 6.0 to avoid fungus problems like club root. If it falls below 6.0, add more fertilizer. Soil pH test kits can be purchased at most home improvement stores and nurseries, or at your local university extension office.

How to harvest turnips

  • Harvest turnip greens when they're young, before the root is mature, by snipping a few from each plant. Don't remove all the greens from any single plant.
  • 45 days after planting, pull up one of your turnips to check for maturity — 2 to 3 inches in diameter is ideal. Some varieties can take up to 70 days to mature; check your seed packet. Turnips grown in spring tend to be smaller and softer, while fall turnips are hardier and more suitable for long-term storage.