A vegetable deeply rooted in the South
Story and Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
Turnips may not be the most glamorous vegetable in garden, but they have a loyal list of followers. The Scots carved them for Halloween before pumpkins took the job. Farmers used them for livestock fodder. Vermont even named the turnip as its state vegetable. Massachusetts has a turnip festival.
The most loyal of the followers are Southerners. They have been eating turnips since they were introduced by early European settlers. The greens and the young small roots are fall favorites. The recipes are endless. Fries, coleslaw, pickled, baked, savory, and sweet are just a few of the ways Southerners like their root vegetables. Turnips are frequent contributions to church potluck dinners and family reunions. So let’s get your patch growing.
The turnip (Brassica rapa) is a biennial (taking two years to complete its life cycle) that is usually grown as an annual. The first year, the plants produce underground roots. If you do not harvest the first year turnips, the second year of growth produces flower stalks and seed aboveground and a tough pithy turnip beneath the soil. This member of the cabbage family is a cool-season crop that can be planted from August to March in Louisiana.
Which turnips should you plant? This depends on whether you want greens or roots. All of the root turnip varieties can be harvested for greens or roots. However, green producing turnips generally do not make a great root crop. Try different colored varieties to brighten up your meals.
Where should you plant them? Turnips need full sun and well-drained, compost-rich soil. If the soil is compacted, the roots will not develop properly. Turnips can be grown in containers that are at least 12 inches deep. The seeds should be sown no deeper than ¼ inch in moist soil. Germination varies from three to 10 days. If the soil is kept moist, the seeds will sprout sooner. As soon as seedlings are 3-4 inches tall, thin them to about 4 inches apart and use the extra seedlings for salads or greens.
For the most succulent roots, water as necessary to keep the plants vigorous and growing. The soil should be moist to the touch, like a wrung-out sponge. Rapid growth results in the best quality turnips. After a few weeks, fertilize the turnips with 10-20-10 to keep them growing. The high middle number is phosphorous which is needed for root development. Pests include aphids, flea beetles, cabbage loopers, and root maggots. Use an approved vegetable garden insecticide if needed. Be sure to read the label. Products with active ingredients carbaryl, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and diazinon can be used if the problem is severe. Diseases are usually not a problem when growing turnips. Contact your local cooperative extension agent if you have any questions.
Harvest turnip greens four or five weeks after sowing. Cut them just above the root or individually pick the outer leaves. Some varieties will regrow their greens if you harvest them in this manner. Varieties grown for greens generally do not make harvestable roots. Root turnips should be harvested when they are about 2-3 inches in diameter. Overgrown roots will be tough, woody, and bitter – spring turnips become inedible when the days become longer and the temperatures are hot. Turnips are quite hardy and will stand mild freezes. Leave these late-planted crops in the ground and they will become sweeter with the cold. Protect them with pine straw mulch. The roots can be stored in the refrigerator but they may wilt. Protect turnips from wilting by storing them in plastic bags. They will last about two weeks in the refrigerator.
Turnips can be eaten raw. They are very easy to prepare and can be used steamed and mashed, roasted, or sautéed. Just be sure not to overcook them. Turnips are a root vegetable that taste like a cross between a carrot and a potato. The roots are high in fiber, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium. The greens are rich in vitamins A and C.
Have you become a loyal follower yet? Plant some turnips. You can always carve them for Halloween if you don’t like the taste. Southerners will always find a use for turnips. They are in our roots.
TAKE A TURN!
Turnip varieties for Louisiana
Variety, roots or tops, days to harvest
‘Purple Top White Globe’, roots, 58
‘Seven Top’, greens, 45
‘Royal Crown’, hybrid roots, 55
‘All Top’, hybrid greens, 50
‘Topper’, hybrid greens, 35
‘Alamo’, hybrid greens, 40
‘Tokyo Cross’, white root (hybrid), 45
‘White Lady’, white root (hybrid), 50
‘Golden Ball’, yellow root (heirloom), 60
8 small turnips, peeled and cut into small cubes
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
Dash of salt
Place the turnips in a medium-sized frying pan. Cover the turnips with water and cook for 5 minutes on a medium heat. Add butter, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Cook for an additional 10 minutes or until the brown sugar forms a thick glaze. You can add carrots to the turnips for color. The result is a sweet peppery side dish. Be careful however, the longer you cook a turnip the more bitter it becomes.