How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Turnips in Your Garden
Thinking of adding some Turnips to your garden this season, but aren't sure where to start? Turnips can be a great addition to any harvest, and make great companion plants for certain vegetables. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through every step you'll need to follow in order to plant, grow, and care for turnips.
Traditionally, turnips haven’t been the most elegant or romanticized of garden vegetables. But in foodie and gardener circles, turnips are finally enjoying a stylish comeback. New cultivars with delicious flavors and textures, coupled with an impressive nutritional profile, are redeeming qualities for this humble root.
Grown and eaten for at least the last 4,000 years, turnips are a root vegetable closely related to radishes and cabbage. They have been grown for both livestock feed and human consumption. For some, turnips seem to insight memories of their grandmother’s mashed or boiled turnip dishes. For others, modern turnips are a culinary delicacy so crisp, sweet, and tender that they can be enjoyed as a snack straight from the garden.
These brassica-family roots are easy to grow and tolerant of spring or fall frosts. While most people are only familiar with the strong-flavored, purple-topped winter turnip, there are in fact dozens of varieties of turnips that give even the tastiest radish or sweetest apple a run for their money. From buttery white ‘Tokyo’ turnips to mild fuchsia salad turnips, there is a vast array of untapped potential for garden-fresh meals.
If you’ve been wanting to try a new spring or fall crop in your garden, turnips are the perfect root for beginners. They are easy to grow, quick to mature, and far more delicious than their reputation may have led you to believe. Let’s dig into how to grow the tastiest turnips you’ve ever tried!
Plant Type Biennial grown as Annual
Plant Family Brassicaceae
Plant Genus Brassica
Plant Species Brassica rapa
Hardiness Zone USDA zones 2-9
Planting Season Spring or Fall
Plant Maintenance Low
Plant Height 6-12” tall, 4-6” wide
Fertility Needs Moderate feeder, boost P and K
Temperature 40-65°F, tolerates 20°F at maturity
Companion Plants Radishes, squash, tomatoes, garlic
Soil Type Loamy, well-drained, slightly alkaline
Plant Spacing 1-2”
Watering Needs Moderate
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Days to Maturity 30-90 days
Pests Flea beetles, root maggots
Diseases Downy mildew, club root
History and Cultivation
Humans have been cultivating turnips since ancient Roman times. In fact, they are one of the oldest known vegetables. But the humble root was not very highly regarded by upper class Europeans for many centuries. Historically, only the rural country peasants ate turnips, or they were fed to cows and pigs during the winter months.
Ironically, the qualities that made turnips important to these populations of country folk are in fact what make this vegetable such an excellent addition to the garden. Turnips could withstand cold, damp winters and hold for a long time in storage. They were easy to grow and yielded prolifically without much fertility or tending. The roots and greens are also nutrient-dense and widely adapted to a diversity of uses in the kitchen.
While turnips were reserved for the rural poor in Europe, they became highly regarded in Asia as a delicate, nearly fruit-flavored snack. Today, specialty varieties of salad turnips (specifically the Asian types) are all the rage amongst locavore chefs and “foodie” circles throughout America.
What Are Turnips?
Turnips (Brassica rapa) are a hardy cool-weather, biennial root crop in the Brassicaceae family. They are closely related to mustards, radishes, broccoli, cabbage, and kale. Turnips are mostly grown in spring or fall. They can be as sweet as carrots or as starchy as potatoes. The greens are also edible and loaded with nutrition. Best of all, turnips thrive in gardens in almost any region.
Turnip plants send most of their energy down to their roots to yield the healthy, fibrous, carbohydrate-rich bulbs loved by ancient farmers. But the bulbous rounded base of the turnip is botanically considered a swollen hypocotyl (not technically root tissue). This is basically an edible storage organ of the plant that is a medley of root, stem, and tuber.
All scientific jargon aside, turnips look a lot like their radish cousins. They average 2-4” in diameter with mustard-like greens that can grow up to 18” tall. Turnips have a more mild, unique flavor than radishes and take longer to mature. However, both radishes and turnips are cultivated in a similar way.
As I’ll explain below, there are many shapes, textures, and colors of turnips, each with their own unique flavor profiles.They can be globe-shaped, elongated, or flat and long. They can be tender and crisp for raw eating or firm and crunchy for winter roasts. The skins can be purple, red, green, white, or mottled. And turnips range in flavor from mild to pungent to slightly bitter to spicy and even sweet. Needless to say, you can’t judge a turnip by its cover!
Where Do Turnips Originate?
Turnips likely originated in temperate parts of central Asia and western Europe. Wild forms of Brassica rapa (wild mustards, wild radishes, and cousins) are also the common ancestors of modern radish, mustard, rutabaga, and Chinese cabbage. The ancient Romans and Greeks both cultivated turnips in some form, though they were mostly reserved for rural peasants or for use as livestock fodder.
As agriculture evolved, turnips spread far and wide throughout the Mediterranean to Asia and beyond. Turnips are so easy to grow that they readily adapted to most every region farmers tried to grow them.
Turnips made their way to the Americas in the late 1500s and early 1600s when explorer Jacques Cartier brought them to Canada and Virginia colonists planted them around the same time in Virginia. Settlers quickly realized how dependable the humble turnip was amidst brutally cold winters when they really needed storage vegetables.
Turnips vs. Rutabagas
While they share a common ancestor, there is a lot of confusion about the difference between turnips and rutabagas. Turnip (Brassica Rapa) is a different species than rutabaga (Brassica napobrassica), but similar in both culture and cooking uses.
Turnips mature faster and have thinner skins than their waxy rutabaga cousins. While turnips are usually harvested at 2-4” in diameter, rutabagas tend to be harvested at 4-6” and need to be cooked a bit longer due to their tougher texture.
Rutabagas are often called “suedes” or “swedes” in Europe and Canada. This European “swede” (the same as the American rutabaga) was developed by crossing a cabbage and a turnip. Swedes remain very popular in England, Sweden, and Scandinavia to this day. Whether you prefer turnips or swedes, both species are grown and cooked in very similar ways. They can even be used interchangeably in many recipes.
Propagation and Planting
Like most brassicas, turnips are propagated by seed and easy to sow. Seeds tend to be on the larger size of mustard-seed, making them great for beginners. They germinate rapidly in 7-10 days and grow fast in consistently moist soil.
Turnips are usually directly sown in the garden because their roots don’t particularly like disturbance. They are also moderately frost tolerant even as seedlings in the spring garden. However, if you prefer, they can be transplanted. But I’ve found that transplanting turnips or radishes just adds another unnecessary step. They like to grow in place.
How to Direct Seed Turnips
Turnips can be seeded in the spring approximately 2 to 3 weeks before your region’s last frost date. They can be sown in succession every few weeks for a continuous harvest through spring. In warmer climates, turnips usually have a harder time growing in the hottest months of June through August. For a fall harvest, you can begin seeding turnips again in late summer or early autumn.
First, prepare a fertile well-drained garden bed with a thin loamy surface layer. Rake it flat and then use the handle of a garden tool to draw furrows in the soil about ½” deep with rows 12-18” apart. Sprinkle the turnip seeds about 1” apart for smaller turnips or 2” apart for larger turnips. You can always thin later if needed.
Keep the seeds consistently moist until germination. I prefer to cover with a light floating row cover directly after seeding to keep the turnips safe from insects and hold in that moisture. For more tender turnips, use overhead or drip irrigation to keep seedlings consistently hydrated. Don’t let the soil dry out, but never let it get soggy either.
How to Grow Turnips
Turnips are a beginner gardener’s dream. When it comes to ease of care and quick maturity (fast gratification anyone?), they are only beaten by their radish cousins in growing speed. On average, turnips take 30-50 days to mature, depending on how big you’d like them to grow.
They are super easy to care for and not very finicky about their growing conditions. With a few simple steps, your turnips will take off in no time and you’ll be enjoying their nutritious roots and greens before you know it!
Turnips thrive best in full sunlight, but they will tolerate a little bit of shade. Shadier spots are best for those who like turnip greens because the roots will not grow as large without full sunlight. Prepare turnip beds in an area of the garden that has at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight and doesn’t get shaded by buildings or trees.
Turnips are really laid back when it comes to care. Their one major need is consistent water. While they can survive with less moisture, they tend to be tougher or more bitter in dry soils. If you want crisp, tender turnips, it’s best to provide them with about 1 inch of water per week (if it isn’t raining).
Consistency is key with turnips. Don’t let the soil dry out, but don’t drown them in water all at once either. Slight but continuous soil moisture is the key to tasty turnips.
Loamy, fertile, well-drained soil is a turnip’s ideal home. They prefer a moderately alkaline pH between 6.0 and 7.5, and plenty of organic matter. Prepare turnip beds by broadforking or otherwise loosening the soil and adding a generous 2-4” layer of compost on top of the bed before planting.
While turnips are shallow-rooted, they do best in gardens that have at least 4-6” of loose topsoil for them to grow nice and tender rather than tough and bitter. As you can tell by now, compaction (poor drainage) and improper irrigation yield bitter turnips. Maybe that’s why so many people hate turnips: they didn’t give them well-drained loamy soil and consistent moisture!
Climate and Temperature
Turnips are cool-weather crops through and through. They really don’t like the heat all that much and may bolt in excessively warm conditions over 90°F.
As spring seedlings, turnips can handle moderate frosts down to 28 or 30°F, especially with row cover or mulch as protection. However, the ideal germination temperature is closer to 50°F.
In the fall, mature plants are remarkably frost tolerant down to 20-25°F. Greens may be damaged on the lower end of their tolerance, but the roots hold quite well in the ground until it freezes in early winter. There is one catch however: turnips need to be well-established at least 3-4 weeks before those hard frosts hit.
Ideally, turnips like to grow in temperatures between 40° and 65°F. Cooler temperatures yield sweeter roots because the sugars become concentrated below ground as frosts approach.
Gardeners and southern climates can grow turnips all winter long, whereas northern gardeners will need to pull their turnips in late fall and store them in a cooler or root cellar, or otherwise preserve them for winter use. Gardeners with mid to mild winters can experiment with storing turnips in the ground. I’ve seen great success with this in zones 7 and 8 of the Pacific Northwest.
Turnips are moderate feeders that need a bit of nitrogen with a nice abundant dose of phosphorus and potassium. This is best achieved with manure-based compost or an all-purpose fertilizer.
For phosphorus, bone meal, egg shells, fish meal, and fish bone meal are great options. For potassium, amending with kelp meal, greensand, or hardwood ash will promote healthy root formation. The additional potassium can be very important in sandy soil where nutrients easily leach out.
All of these fertilizers are best applied at the recommended rates on the package at the time of planting. Turnips don’t take that long to grow and your garden soil microbes will need plenty of time to make these nutrients available for uptake. I prefer to rake in a nice dusting of bone meal and kelp meal just before seeding turnips.
These roots are notoriously easygoing and hands-off once they are planted and irrigated. The only important maintenance you will need to do is thinning. To yield nicely sized bulbs, be sure that turnip seedlings are at least 1-2” apart. The more even your seeding and thinning, the more uniform your turnips will be for preparing in the kitchen.
There are two main categories of turnips: European storage turnips and Asian salad turnips.
You probably associate the word “turnip” with the European type that is white with a purple mottling at the top of the root. These turnips are often met with a scrunched face from children, whereas Asian salad turnip types are very sweet and popular for raw eating. I think both are delicious when planted and eaten properly. Each type has its own merits for specific seasons and dishes.
European Storage Turnips
The white-and-purple tinged turnips we are most familiar with in grocery stores are European varieties. These turnips tend to have thicker skins, longer growing cycles, and a slightly more bitter taste. They cannot be eaten raw unless very young.
However, European turnips are excellent storage crops for late fall and winter. They also boast great frost tolerance and can be stored in the ground in many climates. In general, European turnips have a longer growing season than Asian types.
European types are most closely related to the ancient turnips grown as early as the 100 AC. They are the most common turnips but are unfortunately not super popular amongst many Americans, which is why I often recommend Asian salad turnips to those who scrunch their nose at the term “turnip”. Nonetheless, European types are the best for roasts and stews.
European Turnip Varieties
- ‘Purple Top White Globe’: This is a traditional American turnip, very popular in the southern U.S. The smooth, rounded roots are harvested at 3-4” in diameter. They remain white below the soil line and turn bright purple on the tops. Great greens for cooking. 50 days to mature.
- ‘Gold Ball Turnip’: This unique golden-yellow turnip has a mild flavor slightly reminiscent of almonds. They can grow quite large (up to 5-6” in diameter), but retain a more mild, low-bitter flavor when harvested young. 40-45 days to mature.
- ‘Purple Top Forage Turnips’: If you raise chickens or other small livestock, these turnips are the perfect winter substitute for a lack of foraging grasses. They are high in protein and energy for deer and livestock all winter long. 60-90 days.
Asian Salad Turnips
If you ask me, this is where the real turnip delicacy lies. These modern Asian turnip varieties are bred for tender, raw eating. These are the turnips that are found in high-end farm-to-table restaurants as well as traditional Chinese and Japanese recipes.
Salad turnips are very different from European storage turnips because they can be eaten raw. In fact, they are actually best when they’re raw. As their name implies, salad turnips can be shaved on top of a salad or sliced, sautéed, roasted, pickled, and put in slaws. The tender skins don’t need peeling and the crisp, hydrating texture is reminiscent of something between a sweet baby carrot and an apple. The flavor is sweet and neutral.
The Japanese turnip varieties are very new compared to ancient European turnips, only recently developed in the 1950s during the WWII famine in Japan. These cultivars are bred to grow quickly and enjoyed young at around 2-3” in diameter. They can still withstand mild frosts and produce exceptional fresh greens that are similar to mild mustard greens.
Salad Turnip Varieties
- ‘Hakurei’: The most coveted of Japanese turnips, these pure white roots are smooth and tender. Best harvest at about 2” in diameter, they have a sweet, fruity flavor when raw. The tops can also be used raw or lightly braised. Matures in 38 days.
- ‘Hirosaki Red’: A delicious early red salad turnip with bright pink skins and white-to-red flesh. Round and slightly spicier than other Asian types, these mature in just 41 days and produce great pink-stemmed greens.
- ‘Scarlet Queen Red Stems’: Another gorgeous red salad turnip with a slightly flattened shape. Spicy fuschia skins and crisp white flesh, they add a great splash of color in salads, slaws, and roasts. Dark green tops are great for braising. Best harvested at 2-3” diameter. 43 days to mature.
Pests and Diseases
Turnips are subject to all the common brassica pests. Fortunately, most of them are easily excluded with row cover or beneficial insectary plantings. There are also a few diseases that can attack your turnips, but these pathogens aren’t as common in turnips and quick maturing varieties usually beat them to maturity.
These annoying tiny, shiny beetles jump like fleas when disturbed. They leave behind small “shotholes” in the leaves of turnips and can severely damage or kill the crop if they take over.
Young plants are the most susceptible, especially right after germinating in the garden. This is why I always recommend covering both turnips and radishes with floating row cover right away after seeding. Row cover acts as a physical barrier and keeps flea beetles from reaching your turnip crop. You can also use diatomaceous earth or neem oil as a control method if flea beetle populations get out of hand.
If you notice tunnels and scratches on the roots of your turnips, you may be dealing with root maggot. However, if scratches and bites are larger, the problem is more likely to be voles or rodents.
Root maggot larvae are whitish-yellow and about 1 cm long. They can attack all types of brassica crops, but are especially problematic in pearly white turnip crops where they cause significant aesthetic damage. The best prevention is removing crop debris, using floating row covers (because the adult insect is a fly), and rotating brassicas around the garden.
Wireworms are another larval pest that hangs out in the soil near the bases of turnip stems. They are yellowish-brown shiny worms that girdle stems, kill seedlings, and reduce overall yields. There are no pesticide control methods for wireworms, so it is best to avoid replanting in areas where you think they may live. You can also rotate with non-brassicas to keep numbers down.
Voles and Rodents
Some of the most annoying turnip pests are voles, which often like to take a single bite out of numerous roots in a patch rather than enjoying a single turnip. Baiting and trapping near plantings is the easiest way to keep them at bay, but an outdoor garden cat is the best form of biocontrol.
It also helps to remove crop debris, maintain an orderly weed-free garden, and plant fragrant herbs like catnip or peppermint to repel rodents.
Most common in cool, wet conditions, this fungal pathogen causes yellow-to-brown patches on the leaves and fluffy grey mold-like growths on the undersides. The easiest prevention method is proper spacing, air flow, and removing all crop debris after harvests.
An unfortunate brassica disease, club root is a fungus that can survive in the soil for many years. It causes stunted, slow-growing plants with wilted yellow leaves and distorted roots. There is no known control for club root, so you must focus on planting only certified disease-free brassica seeds and proper crop rotation. Soil lime is also known to help reduce sporulation of this fungus.
Turnip roots are most often enjoyed as cooked vegetables. Shoots and greens also make great additions to salads and braises. European varieties are most commonly enjoyed boiled or roasted, whereas Asian types are delicious when raw.
Turnips are also a common livestock forage crop that has been used for thousands of years as nutritious winter feed for animals.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you take care of a turnip plant?
Turnip seeds are best directly sown in the garden spring through fall, covered with row cover, and kept consistently moist. Turnips don’t need much care aside from weeding (careful not to disturb the roots) and irrigation. A lack of water will ultimately yield bitter, tough turnips.
Do turnips need a lot of sun?
Turnips can be grown in partial shade if you are primarily planting for the greens or small roots. However, to get proper root formation, turnips require full sunlight.
How many hours of sun do turnips need?
For the best turnip roots, ensure they receive at least 6-8 hours of full direct sunlight during the cool parts of the growing season.
Do turnips come back every year?
No, turnips are mostly grown as cool-season annuals that thrive in spring and fall. But if you forget to harvest turnips in the winter, some may grow back in the spring, though the roots may not be very high quality.
Are turnips easy to grow?
Much like radishes, turnips are quick maturing and fairly hands-off once planted. They germinate in just 7-10 days. As long as you thin the turnips, use floating row cover (for excluding pests), and provide consistent soil moisture.
How long does it take turnips to grow from seed?
Storage turnip varieties can take 50-90 days to mature, whereas salad turnips can grow in as little as 30-40 days, depending on the size at harvest.
What plants grow well alongside turnips?
Turnips are a humble root with a long history of enjoyment in cultures around the world. They’re a great way to add diversity to the cool-weather garden, as well as a refreshing early summer snack. The most important thing to remember about growing turnips is that they need consistent moisture to remain tender and tasty. Drought stress causes more bitter, tougher turnips, and no one wants that! Happy gardening!