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How to Grow Rutabagas: The Complete Guide | Almanac.com

How to Grow Rutabagas: The Complete Guide

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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
Plant Type
Sun Exposure
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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Rutabagas

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Also known as “swedes,” rutabagas are essentially a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. They’re grown for their softball-size, golden-color roots and their greens. Here’s how to plant and grow rutabagas in your garden!

About Rutabagas

A biennial root vegetable, rutabagas are usually treated as annual crops generally 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 have lighter skin and white flesh, whereas the rutabaga has a warmer color and yellow fresh with 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 enriched with a layer of compost or organic matter. Avoid planting rutabagas and other cold 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 impede 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 mature. 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, using a garden fork to lift the roots.
  • However, you can 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.
  • Cut off the leaves an inch above the fleshy root. 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 off any soil and dry the root quickly 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).
Gardening Products
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 anti-carcinogenic 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/DiseaseTypeSymptomsControl/Prevention
AphidsInsectMisshapen/yellow leaves: sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black moldGrow 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 rotBacteriaYellow, V-shape areas on leaf edges that brown and progress toward leaf center; leaves eventually collapse; stem cross sections reveal blackened veinsDestroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; provide good drainage; remove plant debris; rotate crops
Cabbage root maggotsInsectWilted/stunted plants; off-color leaves; larvae feeding on rootsUse collars around seedling stems; monitor adults with yellow sticky traps; use row covers; destroy crop residue; till soil in fall; rotate crops
ClubrootFungusWilted/stunted plants; yellow leaves; roots appear swollen/distortedDestroy infected plants; solarize soil; maintain soil pH of around 7.2; disinfect tools; rotate crops
Flea beetlesInsectNumerous tiny holes in leavesUse row covers; mulch heavily; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Root-knot nematodesNematodeRoots “knotty” or galled; plants stunted/yellow/wilted; roots forked/pimpledDestroy crop residue, including roots; choose resistant varieties; solarize soil; add aged manure/compost; disinfect tools; till in autumn; rotate crops
White rustFungusChalk-white blisters mainly on leaf undersides; small, yellow-green spots or blisters, sometimes in circular arrangement, on upper leaf surfaces; possible distortion or gallsDestroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; weed; destroy crop residue; rotate crops
WirewormsInsectSeeds hollowed; seedlings severed; stunting/wilting; roots eaten/boredTrap 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 sweet potatoes or even carrots. Just cut one peeled rutabaga into cubes and add two tablespoons of butter and milk, and season with salt and pepper.

For a more exciting dish, try this casserole, standard in some Scandinavian countries. Take the above-mashed rutabaga, mix in couple of 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 raisins, too, remove the cinnamon sticks, and serve.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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