Often ignored by cooks and gardeners alike as uninteresting, bland and second best, the humble turnip is in fact an extremely tasty addition to soups, stews and even salads. And as growing turnips is so easy, there’s no excuse.
Turnips are amazing in at least three ways:
First, they’re among the earliest of all the vegetables you can grow in a spring garden, with seeds germinating at temperatures as low as 2 degrees C.
Second, they put down an amazing taproot, sometimes 50ft long. This enables them to bring minerals and nutrients to the surface – and potentially the compost heap – that almost no other plant can reach.
Third, growing turnips is ridiculously easy.
And, all these are completely aside from their taste – which is completely different to everything else in the garden except perhaps swede, which actually a comparative newcomer to the garden scene and is a cross between a turnip and kale.
A range of varieties are available from small, all-white turnips such as ‘Snowball’ that are best around the size of a golf ball, to the flat-top ‘red’ varieties, to my personal favourite – ‘Limousin’, a huge monster main crop turnip available from Real Seeds which can grow to the size of a football – without going woody or losing that wonderful flavour.
Smaller varieties will become woody if allowed to grow too large, and as they can be ready in as little as five weeks from sowing (yes, turnips are a very quick crop, too) successive sowing, every two weeks, is the key to having them available for the long-term.
It’s probably better to sow the first turnips in modules for planting out later. Once the weather is slightly warmer they can be sown direct. While they will germinate when it’s cold, germination is much faster at 10 degrees C.
Turnips are brassicas and are therefore hearty feeders. Give them plenty of compost and decent drainage. They don’t like acidic soil, so a touch of lime or wood ash is a good idea. Keep them moist – don’t let them dry out or there’s a risk of splitting.
The leaves, when young, are a good alternative to kale but quite unappetising if left to grow too big.
Growing turnips through the winter from a July or August sowing is easy, especially if you have a polytunnel – and harvesting them there is much easier than trying to dig through frozen earth outside!
Cabbage root fly and flea beetle are the main pests, and of course white butterflies love visiting all your brassica crops to lay eggs. A covering of horticultural fleece will keep all of these at bay. If club root becomes a problem in your garden it’s impossible to eradicate, but it can be somewhat controlled. Add lime to the beds to raise the pH, and grow seedlings on in bigger pots to plant out later in the season than you otherwise would. Import new earth to the planting sites so that there’s less risk of infection.
Never accept brassica seedlings from an unknown source, and if you do get an infected site, you can reduce the risk of spreading the disease by washing hands, footwear, wheelbarrow wheels and tools after use.
Harvest smaller varieties when golf-ball sized, and at around 10cms across for the flatter, red-top types. Any larger, and unless it’s a ‘main crop’ variety it’s unlikely to have improved. As mentioned, Limousin appears to be an exception to the usual rule that main crop varieties have an inferior taste to their smaller cousins – this one tastes great at any size!
Young turnip leaves can be steamed, and even chopped for use in a salad. Raw, grated turnip is another wonderful salad addition. Otherwise, wash the root and slice before adding to soups and stews, or steamed as a side dish (with maybe just a dab of butter on top) on their own.
The smaller and younger the turnip is, the less likely it is to require peeling before use. Larger varieties, including Limousin, need peeling.