Turnips are brassicas that are related to mustard and radishes. They are full of vitamin K and beta-carotene, and can be grown for both their roots and their greens.
Roots are fabulous roasted in goose fat or boiled up with black pepper and served with meat, they also lend themselves to soups and being stuffed with any healthy filling you like. On the other hand, the greens make an excellent spinach substitute that is divine when tossed in butter and parsley.
Turnips mature quickly and are very easy to grow, they are always a welcome sight in the spring or autumn garden when the ground is looking a little sparse and they will keep for months.
There literally hundreds of different types of turnip, in a multitude of colours. There are those grown for their leaves, those grown for an early crop and main crop types.
Market express is a white, Asian, globular variety; small white Asian turnips are the sweetest when raw and make the best salads. Market express has an amazing texture quality and is one of the best turnips in the mouth. Plant in late spring and they will be ready for lifting in only 6 weeks.
Milan white is a fabulous early cropper from Italy. It has a scrumptious, sweet flavour and white, crunchy texture. Plant them in early springtime for best results. You will end up with bags of perfectly formed turnips in around 6 weeks.
Snowball is another good, white, early-cropping kind that is best sown early in the year. It grows very rapidly and is great for roasting.
Purple Top is a well-known turnip in Britain, with a purple top like a radish. Purple topped varieties are normally best for greens as they produce more of them for longer, they are also the kind horses love. This variety is very sweet and great for either salads or stir fries. It can be sown in April for an early crop, or in August for a late one, but it must be pulled after around 6 weeks, or kept for greens.
Atlantic is a big purple top that unlike Purple Top itself can be left for maincropping. Plant Atlantic in springtime and leave them in the ground until autumn for bumper roots, or sow many seeds in a raised bed and collect small roots regularly for salads and pickling.
Known in Scotland and the north of England as a turnip, the swede is actually a slightly different vegetable called a rutabaga which is a hybrid of a cabbage and a turnip. Their sweet yellow flesh tastes amazing roasted or mashed and is of course the perfect complement to haggis. They also make great Halloween lanterns but the uncooked flesh is very hard, so carving them involves a fair bit of work. Swedes are grown in a similar method to normal turnips except they must be left in the ground for at least 3 months. They are extremely winter-hardy and the more they are hit with frost, the sweeter they taste, so the crop definitely suits a late sowing. For best results, plant your seeds in summer for an October harvest.
Scarlet Queen is a deep red American variety, with crunchy white flesh inside. They taste great steamed or finely chopped onto salads. Seeds can be a little hard to find in Britain but it is possible online, and they will grow fine in the UK. However, red turnips must be harvested young because they begin to turn bitter quite quickly.
Turnips are amongst the most simple crops to grow, but do not transplant well, so you will plant them straight into the ground. They can be planted at any time between February and August. If you do not fancy making a dedicated turnip bed then you can just sprinkle a few seeds wherever you have a bare patch and the likelihood is that they will grow just fine.
If you do wish to create a dedicated patch, then choose a well-drained bed in partial shade. Dig it over about a week before planting and add some compost and fish blood and bone.
Sow the turnip seeds about 2 cm (1”) apart, in rows 30 cm (12”) apart and water well. Keep watering little and often until seedlings begin to appear.
You should thin the seeds out as soon as possible to allow the stronger plants space to thrive. Thin them so there is around 15 cm (6”) between them if you are growing early varieties. For maincrops you want a bit more space, so about 25 cm (10”) is good.
Turnips are a pretty maintenance-free crop, just make sure to keep their beds free of weeds and water regularly. You can mulch around them with straw to keep them cool if you feel they are getting too much sun and this should prevent bolting.
Sometimes their tops can be attacked by aphids. If you see any aphids on them, just cut off the foliage, pick off any stragglers and hose down the plant. If you are lucky your turnip will shake off the attack and sprout new foliage.
Turnip leaves can be cut about four weeks after sowing. If you want early roots then get them when they are between the size of a golf ball or a tennis ball, smaller ones are better for salads. Maincrop turnips will tend to take another few months. Just grab the tops and pull them up.
You can store roots in the fridge for two months, or in boxes of damp sand for up to six months. The greens won’t keep for long mind but they taste better when freshly chopped anyway.
If space is an issue for you then you might want to try growing turnips in containers. You need a container that is at least 30 cm (12”) deep. Just fill it with compost, sprinkle on some turnip seeds, place in a sunny yard, and water. Keep watering every time the pot starts to dry out. Regularly thin the plants and use them for salads and stir fries, then leave those that are left to become maincroppers!