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How to Grow Turnips: The Complete Guide

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Turnips are a cool-weather root vegetable that germinate in only a few days.

Photo Credit
Elena Koromyslova/Shutterstock
Botanical Name
Brassica rapa (Rapifera Group)
Plant Type
Sun Exposure

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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Turnips

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Turnips are cool-weather root vegetables that can be grown in both spring and fall. They mature quickly, and both the bright greens and roots can be enjoyed. Learn more about this ancient root vegetable—all the way from planting to harvesting.

About Turnips

Turnips will grow in spring or fall weather but do not like the hot summer months. (Note that an autumn crop seeded in late summer is usually sweeter and more tender than a spring crop, and pests are less of a problem.)

Turnips are seeded directly into the garden; they do not transplant well. Plus, they germinate in only a few days. Within a month, their greens are ready to harvest, and within a second month, the swollen roots are ready to be taken up.

How do you cook turnips? Turnips can be eaten raw, baked, boiled, roasted, or mashed. Prepare turnips as you would carrots. Or, try them as an alternative to potatoes; we enjoy a turnip gratin or a turnip soufflé.

Planting

Turnips grow best in full sun when temperatures range from 40° to 75°F. As soon as the garden can be worked, loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches. Mix in 2 to 4 inches of aged manure and/or compost. Add more to heavy, clay soil to improve drainage.

When to Plant Turnips

  • For a late spring harvest, sow turnip seeds about 2 to 3 weeks before the average last spring frost date.
  • For an autumn harvest, sow turnips in late summer after summer crops of onions, squash, beans, or sweet corn.
  • For a later autumn harvest, sow seeds in early autumn.

How to Plant Turnips

  • Before planting, mix in a nice low organic fertilizer (such as a 5-5-5) about 12 inches into the soil. Avoid over-fertilizing with nitrogen, or you’ll get leafy greens at the expense of a big root. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers.
  • Sow seeds directly in the soil ¼ to ½ of an inch deep, 1 inch apart, in rows 12 to 18 inches apart.
  • You can also scatter turnip seeds and thin the seedlings later.
  • Cover seeds with not more than ½ an inch of soil.
  • Water well and consistently.
  • Protect spring crops from pests with row covers at planting.

Growing

  • Once seedlings are 4 inches high, thin them to 4 to 6 inches apart. Crowding can result in small or malformed roots. If you grow them any closer than 4 inches, they’re not going to grow.
  • Keep the beds weed-free, but be careful of disturbing the root of young turnips.
  • Mulch heavily to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
  • Turnips do not need much care, but consistent soil moisture is important. Water regularly to keep the soil lightly moist; one inch per week should prevent roots from becoming tough and bitter.

How to Avoid Bolting

Turnips are hardy biennials, even though we treat them as annuals. They naturally flower and go to seed in the second year. In the first year, they sometimes may bolt (flower and go to seed early) due to stress caused by extreme temperatures (cold or hot) or lack of nutrients or water. Such stresses can also result in little or no root growth, a root that forms above ground, or greens only.

Be sure to pick turnips before temperatures get into the 80s (F) to avoid bolting.

Harvesting

  • Harvest greens when turnips are small; the leaves taste best when young and tender. Cut leaves 2 inches above the base; they may grow back. Harvest just a few at a time, if also growing for roots.
  • Harvest roots at any time; however, small, young turnips are more tender. Often early types are harvested after about 5 weeks. Main crop types after 6 to 10 weeks.
  • For fall turnips, consider harvesting after one or two light frosts (but before a hard freeze) for a sweeter taste. 
  • Mulch to harvest later in the season and to protect from a hard freeze.

How to Store Turnips

  • Store for up to 3 or 4 months in a cool (32° to 38°F), dark place such as a root cellar, or store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
  • If storing in the refrigerator, keep turnips in a perforated plastic bag. It’s important that the turnips do not dry out, but also that they do not become moldy from too much moisture.
  • To freeze: Peel, wash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, blanch for 3 minutes, cool immediately in cold water, and drain. Pack into containers, label, and freeze.
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Wit and Wisdom

  • “Turnips like a dry bed but a wet head.”
  • Turnips are often confused with rutabagas because they are similar, and people like to plant them together. The two root vegetables grow well under the same conditions, but rutabagas take about four weeks longer to mature.
  • In 19th-century Ireland, Halloween jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips, not pumpkins. Lit by a candle inside, the grotesque faces were intended to scare away demons and evil spirits. Learn more about the origins of halloween traditions.

Pests/Diseases

Turnip 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 rotInsectYellow, 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
Downy mildewFungusYellow, angular spots on upper leaf surfaces that turn brown; white/purple/gray cottony growth on leaf undersides only; defoliationRemove plant debris; choose resistant varieties; ensure good air circulation; avoid overhead watering
Flea beetlesInsectNumerous tiny holes in leavesUse row covers; mulch heavily; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Powdery mildewFungusWhite spots on upper leaf surfaces expand to flour-like coating over entire leaves; foliage may yellow/die; distortion/stunting of leavesDestroy infected leaves or plants; choose resistant varieties; plant in full sun, if possible; ensure good air circulation; spray plants with 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 quart water; destroy crop residue
StinkbugsInsectYellow/white blotches on leaves; shriveled seeds; eggs, often keg-shape, in clusters on leaf undersidesDestroy crop residue; handpick (bugs emit odor, wear gloves); destroy eggs; spray nymphs with insecticidal soap; use row covers; weed; till soil in fall
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 galls; stems may also be infectedDestroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; weed; destroy crop residue; rotate crops

Cooking Notes

If you’re wondering how to cook turnips, you’re not alone. Both the turnip greens and roots are very nutritious. Turnip roots should generally be peeled and sliced before using them. Both turnip roots and turnip greens are usually cooked, though they can be eaten raw if young and tender.

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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