Turnips (Brassica rapa var. rapa L.) are a member of the Brassicaceae family of plants (aka mustard plants) which includes some veggies we are pretty familiar with such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and arugula. Like many of the vegetables from this family, turnips are great because they have a unique taste all their own. Plus, with turnips, you can eat both the root and the green!
They didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday…
The turnip, or neep as some call it, originated in its wild form in eastern and middle Asia and has been around for thousands of year. It hasn’t been exactly what you’d call a popular vegetable though. This vegetable was primarily thought of as a food for those not endowed with wealth and as fodder for livestock. In fact, in the early 1700’s Lord Charles Townshend introduced turnips to the United Kingdom as a way for livestock producers to overwinter their cattle, etc., due to the hardy turnip being a cool season crop that could endure the cold of winter.
As time marched on, the turnip went from Europe to North America and from there several varieties of this root crop were developed. Today, it’s much more appreciated for its nutritional value, although it’s still used as a cover crop on no-till fields and to feed livestock. Even as the turnip gains a little more appreciation and prominence, it’s still often confused with jicama (Pachyrhizus) and the rutabaga (Brassica napus var. napobrassica), which is actually a cross between a turnip and cabbage. So while they aren’t the same vegetable, they are closely related.
Totally Terrific Turnips
Turnips are one of the easier crops to grow, especially if done so in the right season. Turnips are great to plant in the early spring or late summer/early fall for both roots and greens. Turnips mature in about 2 months, so make sure you can harvest before summer’s heat takes its toll on them if planting in the spring. The advantages of a fall planting are that the crop is usually larger, of higher quality, and can be stored for winter use. Plus, because turnips are hardy to fall frosts, they’re often sweetened by cool weather. Covering your crop with a heavy straw mulch can extend harvest through the early part of the winter.
Another thing that makes turnips easy to grow, and a great vegetable for the garden, is that fall turnips can be broadcast planted after other crops like such as early potatoes or peas, and even between rows of sweet corn. To broadcast plant turnips you will need to properly prepare the seedbed and then lightly rake in the seed. Nothing more needs to be done, except manually removing any prominent weeds and watering the crop consistently.
If you’re row planting turnips you will need to sow seeds ½” deep in rows 1’ apart. Adequately watering your new plantings is critical, especially for spring planted crops. Once the seedlings begin popping up and reach about 3-4”, thin them to ~2” apart. The seedlings you remove can be eaten as greens. As your turnips grow to about 5-6” in height, you can begin harvesting the tops for greens. If you don’t remove the growing points the tops will regrow. If you want to continually harvest the greens and roots, two-week interval successive plantings will allow for this. You can begin harvesting the roots 1-2 months after planting when root tops are 1-2” in diameter. Allowing turnips to grow too large or long will result in an overpowering flavor and a tough, fibrous root.
When it’s time to harvest your turnips, loosen the soil around them with a gardening fork, and gently lift the root out of the soil. Remove the greens and store separately from the root in the vegetable crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Don’t wash either one until immediately before using. The roots and greens should be wrapped in moist cloths or paper towel and placed in a perforated plastic bag. The roots will keep for up to 5 months, but greens should be eaten within 5-7 days.
The pests that can plague turnips include root maggots, cutworms, aphids, and several caterpillars. Manual removal and row cover usage can help reduce damage done by caterpillars and cutworms. Planting to invite predatory insects into your garden can help control aphid populations. Root maggots are often the most difficult to deal with. They can overwinter in your garden, especially if there’s a lot of organic debris. Keeping your garden need and tidy can really help prevent this and other pest problems. Rotational planting is also a great way to reduce pest problems for turnips and all garden plants.
Turn-ip your nutrition!
In a 1 cup serving (130 grams), turnip root offers 36 calories, 0 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, and 8 grams of carbohydrates (2 grams of which is dietary fiber). Turnips are an excellent source of Vitamin C, and good source of selenium, and also provide all the B Vitamins except for B-12. They also provide the minerals calcium, copper, non-heme-iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium.
In a 1 cup serving (55 grams), raw turnip greens offer 18 calories, 0 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, and 4 grams of carbohydrates (2 grams of which is dietary fiber). Turnips are an excellent source of Vitamin A, C, B-9 (folate), and K-1. The greens are a good source of Vitamin E (tocopherol) and the minerals calcium, copper, and manganese. They also provide the Vitamins B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5, and B-6, along with the minerals non-heme-iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium.
So you can imagine by eating both the root and the greens, you’d definitely boost up your nutrition! And it just so happens I have the recipe for that!
Turnips & Bacon
5 turnip roots and their greens
Bacon – as much or as little as you like (I typically go with 8 slices of thick cut)
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 onion coarsely chopped (red is my favorite to use, but any will work)
Balsamic vinegar for drizzling
Cut turnip leaves from turnip root
Wash turnip greens thoroughly in cold water to remove all dirt
Coarsely chop greens
Peel turnip root and chop into small cubes
Place chopped turnip root in a bowl with water to keep from turning color
Place 7 cups water in a large stock pot
Bring to a boil
Cut bacon slices into fourths
Add bacon to stock pot
Reduce heat to medium-high
Let bacon boil for 15 minutes
Add greens (a little at a time) to stock pot
Cover stock pot with lid
Simmer greens for 15 minutes
If liquid begins to boil away add additional water
Add salt and pepper
Pour water off of chopped turnip roots
Place roots in stock pot
Stir well and cover with lid
Allow greens and roots to simmer over medium-low heat until both are tender (15-20 minutes)
Remove from heat
Using a slotted spoon remove greens, roots, and bacon from stock pot
Plate and drizzle with balsamic vinegar and top with chopped onions
Serve while warm and enjoy!
There you have it. A delicious and nutritious way to enjoy all of the turnip. If you think the turnips are too “stinky” while cooking, just add a tablespoon of white vinegar to the mix. If you like it spicy, top this dish with diced, pickled jalapenos or hot sauce. Get creative and make the turnip your new favorite vegetable to cook with!
Turnips have it all!
Hardy, healthy, and historic, what more could you ask for in a vegetable? The turnip is easy to grow, wonderful to eat, and can really shake up your menu. So, if you’re looking for an exceptional and distinctive root vegetable to grow, then the turnip’s your plant. Enjoy all of it and all it has to offer!
SNAP-Ed. USDA. Turnips. https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/seasonal-produce-guide/turnips
University of Illinois Extension. 2017. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. College of ACES. Watch Your Garden Grow. Turnip/Rutabaga. https://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/turnip.cfm