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Rutabagas | Almanac.com

Rutabagas

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Though similar to turnips, rutabagas have a sweet flavor and will taste best if harvested past the first few frosts.

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Peter Turner/Shutterstock
Botanical Name
Brassica napobrassica
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How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Rutabagas

The Editors
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Rutabagas, also known as swedes, are root vegetables grown for both their softball-size golden roots and their greens. Midsummer is the best time to plant rutabagas for a bumper fall harvest. Here’s how to grow interesting rutabagas in your garden!

About Rutabagas

A biennial root vegetable, rutabagas are usually treated as annual crops that are planted in midsummer and allowed to mature in the cool weather of fall (or as a winter crop in warmer climates). They make a lovely autumn harvest vegetable after being “kissed” by a fall frost, which brings out a richer flavor. 

Rutabagas are often confused with turnips; they’re called “swedes” in Europe and “neeps” in Scotland. To add further confusion, they’re also called “Swedish turnips” or “winter turnips” or “yellow turnips.” They are not turnips, though they are cousins and essentially a cross between a turnip and cabbage.

Turnips are much smaller than rutabagas which are the size of a grapefruit (thanks to its cabbage relation). In addition, turnips are have a lighter skin and white flesh whereas the rutabaga has a warmer color and yellow fresh with a smooth and waxy blue-green foliage. Finally, there’s the difference in taste. Turnips generally have spicy notes; rutabagas have a mild, sweet flavor with a faint peppery flavor.

Compared to turnips, rutabagas require a few weeks longer to mature. Otherwise, the two vegetables require very similar care in the garden. This is an easy-to-grow root vegetable as long as you follow some of the basic requirements outlined below, namely planting dates and consistent watering.

Planting

Rutabagas prefer full sun (or light shade). Grow them in the ground or in raised beds with deep, loose soil without any rocks or soil clumps. While rutabagas will tolerate ordinary soil, the roots will grow bigger in fertile soil that’s been enriched with a layer of compost or organic matter. Avoid planting rutabagas and other cole crops in the same place more than once every 3 to 4 years.

When to Plant Rutabagas

The main challenge with rutabagas is getting the timing right. Rutabagas must mature in cool weather (no warmer than 60°F at night). They need at least 3 months to mature, so count back 90 days from your fall frosts to estimate a good sowing time. Roots will become woody and fibrous if they get a warm spell when maturing. A light fall frost improves the roots’ quality and flavor.

How to Plant Rutabagas

  • Maximize your harvest with a balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer, adding half of the recommended amount at planting and half about 4 weeks after planting. Avoid too much nitrogen at all once, which can impeded bulb formation.
  • Sow seeds when the soil reaches 40ºF. Optimum soil temperatures are 40º to 60º F.

  • Plant seeds 1/2 of an inch deep, 2 inches apart, in rows 14 to 18 inches apart.

  • To sidestep a hot summer, start seedlings indoors and set them out when it’s cloudy. Or direct-seed into the ground and thin later to proper spacing.
  • Seeds will germinate in 4 to 7 days. After germination, thin to 6 inches apart. Do NOT crowd rutabagas or they will grow huge tops with skinny roots. 
Growing
  • Water with 1 to 1½ inches per week and more as roots reach maturity. Never let the soil dry out. Keep moist but not soggy or waterlogged. An old rutabaga-growing adage says, “If in doubt, water.”
  • Water consistently. Spotty watering that teeters from dry to wet will cause split roots. This is where a soaker hose (or drip irrigation) would come in handy.
  • Mulch to retain moisture and keep soil cool.
  • Control weeds with frequent but shallow cultivation.
  • Sustained average temperatures of over 80ºF might cause bolting.
Harvesting
  • Harvest the roots when they are 4 to 5 inches in diameter for best taste. (They’ll be the size of a softball.) Be gentle when harvesting the roots.
  • However, you call also harvest early—when the roots are 2 to 3 inches in diameter—for a more tender, succulent texture.
  • The roots will push up out of the ground as they gain size; this is perfectly normal. Note that garden-grown rutabagas tend to be more top-shaped than round.
  • A few frosts will enhance the sweet flavor of rutabagas, but be sure to harvest before the ground freezes.
  • Rutabaga foliage is edible when harvested young and tender. However, do not harvest more than a few leaves per root, as they need their foliage to grow big roots.

How to Store Rutabagas

  • To store, cut off the foliage to within 1 inch of the crown with a sharp knife. Wash the roots lightly before letting them dry for a day in a cool place.
  • Store the roots in plastic bags in the refrigerator.
  • Or, store a larger harvest in moist sand or sawdust in a cold garage, shed, basement, or root cellar. However, to last long (up to four months), rutabagas need high humidity (90 to 95%) and cold temperatures (just above freezing).
Wit and Wisdom
  • Rutabagas were among the early jack-o-lanterns (they didn’t always use pumpkins!). Try spicing up your Halloween decorations next fall with a carved rutabaga.
  • Rutabagas are known as “Hanovers” in some mid-Atlantic states and as “table turnips” in parts of Canada.
  • Rutabagas were originally animal fodder, but humans soon recognized their nutritional and tasty potential. They are low in calories and high in fiber. Rutabagas are also high in anticarcinogenic compounds.
  • When added to salt, powder from rutabaga seeds is a folk remedy for cancer.
Pests/Diseases
  • Using floating row covers for the first few weeks will eliminate most insect pests.

Rutabaga Pests and Diseases

Pest/Disease Type Symptoms Control/Prevention
Aphids Insect Misshapen/yellow leaves: sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold Grow companion plants; knock off with water spray; apply insecticidal soap; put banana or orange peels around plants; wipe leaves with a 1 to 2 percent solution of dish soap (no additives) and water every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Black rot Bacteria Yellow, V-shape areas on leaf edges that brown and progress toward leaf center; leaves eventually collapse; stem cross sections reveal blackened veins Destroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; provide good drainage; remove plant debris; rotate crops
Cabbage root maggots Insect Wilted/stunted plants; off-color leaves; larvae feeding on roots Use collars around seedling stems; monitor adults with yellow sticky traps; use row covers; destroy crop residue; till soil in fall; rotate crops
Clubroot Fungus Wilted/stunted plants; yellow leaves; roots appear swollen/distorted Destroy infected plants; solarize soil; maintain soil pH of around 7.2; disinfect tools; rotate crops
Flea beetles Insect Numerous tiny holes in leaves Use row covers; mulch heavily; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Root-knot nematodes Nematode Roots “knotty” or galled; plants stunted/yellow/wilted; roots forked/pimpled Destroy crop residue, including roots; choose resistant varieties; solarize soil; add aged manure/compost; disinfect tools; till in autumn; rotate crops
White rust Fungus Chalk-white blisters mainly on leaf undersides; small, yellow-green spots or blisters, sometimes in circular arrangement, on upper leaf surfaces; possible distortion or galls Destroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; weed; destroy crop residue; rotate crops
Wireworms Insect Seeds hollowed; seedlings severed; stunting/wilting; roots eaten/bored Trap by digging 2- to 4-inch-deep holes every 3 to 10 feet, fill with mix of germinating beans/corn/peas or potato sections as bait, cover with soil or a board, in 1 week uncover and kill collected wireworms; sow seeds in warm soil for quick germination; provide good drainage; remove plant debris; rotate crops
Cooking Notes

A good roast or soups are the most common ways to eat rutabagas or swedes. Many folks also mash rutabaga, often with potatoes or sweet potatoes or even carrots. Just cut one peeled rutabaga in cubes and add two tablespoons butter and milk, and season with salt and pepper.

For a more interesting dish, try this casserole common in some Scandinavian countries. Take the above mashed rutabaga, mix in couple tablespoons of molasses, a half teaspoon of nutmeg, 1 beaten egg, and 2 tablespoons of bread crumbs. Bake in a casserole dish at 350° for 30 minutes.

Rutabaga mixes well with fruits such as apple and pear and raisin. Try cooking the rutabaga (cut into cubes) until fork-tender. Add grated or thinly-sliced apples, some sugar, cloves, salt, and cinnamon sticks. Throw in some raisons too, remove the cinnamon sticks, and serve.

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