Looking for a low-maintenance crop that can be harvested in a short amount of time? Look no further than turnips, the cool-season biennial root vegetable you can harvest in both the spring and fall.
When to Sow Seeds
Sow turnip seeds early in the spring — or as soon as you're able to work the soil again — for a late spring harvest. This tends to be about two to three weeks before the final frost of the season. By that point, the soil should have warmed to at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you can also sow turnips late in the summer for a fall harvest. In fact, the temperatures during that time of year (between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit) may cause them to grow even more rapidly than those sown in the early spring.
Regardless of when you sow the seeds, you have to be sure to sow them directly into the ground, as turnips typically don’t like to be transplanted. The seeds should germinate a few days after that, and they'll be ready to harvest in about five to ten weeks. To enjoy their stems as you would other greens like kale, you'll want to harvest them as soon as they start to appear. Both turnip roots and greens are full of nutrients. Enjoy them either raw or cooked.
Things to Consider When Planting
If you’d like to sow turnips in your garden, section off an area that receives partial to full sun and drains well (since turnips are root crops, they don’t tend to do well in moist soil). They grow best in loamy, nutrient-rich soil. Loosen the top 12 to 15 inches up and amend it with manure or compost. If your soil tends to be clay-based, try adding some sand to it to improve its texture.
To sow the seeds, simply scatter them over the soil. Rake them in, but don’t bury them, as they shouldn’t be covered by more than a half-inch of soil. If you prefer to plant them in rows, sprinkle them in lines over the ground. If you're worried about the lines being straight, just use a string. Space your rows a foot apart, and water them right after sowing to help kick-start germination, which usually takes a week or two. Keep the soil evenly watered throughout the growing season.
After the seedlings have sprouted and are about four inches tall, thin them until only the strongest sprouts remain. You’ll want at least four inches between sprouts, but if you're hoping to harvest greens later on, you may want to leave them just a few inches apart. You don’t need to thin the greens if you plan to use the greens.
It’s important to keep your garden free from weeds, which will rob your turnips of essential nutrients. Although these veggies can get by on rainfall, it’s a good idea to give them about an inch of water a week for a strong and healthy crop. Above all else, make sure that the plants get a balanced amount of water — too much will cause their roots to rot, and too little will cause them to become tough.
If you live in a zone that tends to stay relatively cool during the summer, you have the option of growing turnips in succession. Plant more seeds every 10 days, and you’ll be able to harvest the roots all throughout the growing season.
Fertilize with Care
Gardeners tend to fertilize their crops to improve the health and taste of the things they grow. Turnips will grow best if an organic fertilizer is applied to them every month. Although nitrogen tends to make their leaves full and green, their roots are not so robust. Choose a food-safe fertilizer that's high in potassium and phosphorous instead. Better yet, apply compost tea to your plants to give them a more balanced dose of nutrients.
Pests and Diseases
A few pests tend to like turnips, including root maggots, flea beetles, and aphids. Turnips are also prone to diseases like powdery and downy mildew. If you’d like to steer clear these inconveniences, avoid growing your turnips in the spots you've recently grown radishes or rutabagas in. Crop rotation also prevents these pests from flourishing. Remember that seeds sown in the early fall tend to suffer less from these issues than those sown earlier in the year.
What happens if your turnips become infested with pests and diseases? While you may not be able to save the affected plants, you can save those around them by removing all diseased plant matter and treating the soil around it.
When to Harvest
If it’s the turnips' leaves you’re after, you'll want to harvest them early on, when they’re tender and taste best. You can harvest the roots whenever you wish. While early varieties are ready after a month, others can be harvested in six weeks. Keep in mind that smaller roots are usually tenderer than large ones.
To see how big a root is, brush some of the soil away from its plant. If you planted all of your seeds at the same time, chances are that all of the turnips will be ready to pull when it looks like one of them is.
Turnips can be stored for up to four months if kept in a cool, dry spot like a basement or garage. Twist the tops off, but resist the urge to wash them, as the dirt may actually protect them. Be sure to cover them with straw before storing them in an any cool spot. You can also store them in the refrigerator.