Let's Talk Turnips
Story and Photos by Cindy Shapton


Turnip Greens

Turnips, Brassica rapa, have a history about as long and hairy as their taproots. One of the most ancient of vegetables, it has been cherished as a valuable food source before the popularity of the potato, credited with saving nations from starvation, has been despised for lowly association with the poor, and referred to as peasant food.

Long ago, farmers in various parts of the world figured out that turnips store well and could sustain their cattle during the winter months when hay wasn't affordable or attainable. It is still used as a feed source for cattle today. Turnips are also planted in pastures where cattle graze to cut down on manual labor and allow the cattle to help themselves.

Anyone who plants an annual patch knows turnips are delicious; just ask any deer. They will root them out with their snout and hooves as gingerly as any garden fork, skipping the middleman or farmers' market and going straight to their stomach. (You may want to apply deer repellant if deer are an issue in your area.)

Most children shy away from turnips in general, even though mom always touts greens as the healthiest food on the planet. In the South it is said that eating turnip greens is an acquired taste and you know you are finally a grown-up when you actually like and look forward to turnip greens.

Hakurei Turnips

Turnips, with their bulbous roots and green tops, are really two vegetables in one. When you factor how easy turnips are to grow, along with their nutrient value to the soil and us, they are a "no-brainer" in the fall and spring kitchen garden.

September is the perfect time to sow turnips in the garden since this brassica loves cool, damp soil and is a fast crop to harvest. There are many ways to plant turnips. Most people agree that they do best in a patch or block of the garden. I use raised beds and broadcast one 4- by 4-foot bed. Then a week or two later I broadcast more seed in a different 4- by 4-foot bed to ensure a good stand of turnips. After I shower the bed with seeds, I add a light cover of fine-textured soil (potting mix), gently tamp with my hand and then sprinkle with water.

My friend Diane lives in the country and plants a 15- by 15-foot-block in her garden by first tilling the soil, then broadcasting a liberal amount of seed with the rhythm and precision of an overhead water sprinkler. She doesn't bother to cover, tamp or water seeds and for the past 30 years has always had a fine crop ... now that is easy!

Flea beetles and aphids are partial to turnips so be on the lookout and treat early with insecticidal soap products, or try row covers at planting time. Disease problems can be avoided with crop rotation. Weeds are not usually a problem this time of year, plus turnips grow fast, shading any area weeds might try to infiltrate.

Different varieties of turnips are plentiful. Some are colorful, some are grown just for their greens and don't have much of a bulb root at all, still others are beloved for their roots and greens. Check with your neighbor or a local farmer at the farmers' market to see what varieties do best in your neck of the woods. If greens are your favorite part of the turnip, try mixing different seeds of mustard, turnips and kale together for a patch of spicy greens.

Harvest greens in early morning with scissors or a sharp knife as soon as they are big enough to use raw in salads. Most folks agree they are best when they are about the size of your hand. Start using the round roots when they are about the size of a golf ball.

Turnips are cold hardy and some believe they are better after a light frost or two. Continue harvesting throughout the winter or until the greens die back from excessive cold. Watch for tender shoots that pop up in early spring — they are tasty steamed with a little butter and salt and pepper.

In the spring, work the turnip remains back into the soil, adding nutrients and organic matter for the next crop of warm-season veggies.

Scarlet Queen Turnips

Turnip roots can be peeled, diced, sliced or shredded and eaten raw in salads or with a dip. They can be peeled, boiled and mashed. If you are not a fan of the turnipy flavor, add a potato or some carrots to the mix. Turnips are delicious peeled, quartered, drizzled with olive oil, seasoned and roasted in the oven. Try dicing turnips into soups and stews.

The greens can be steamed, sautéed with a little garlic and onion, or boiled with some fatback, bacon drippings or a slice of country ham. Cooking the greens and roots together is good too, and saves a lot of time.

Turnips are healthy and an excellent source of dietary fiber. The bulb is loaded with vitamin C and was once used to keep scurvy at bay. The greens are full of vitamins and minerals: vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B6, folate, copper and calcium.

Consumption of turnip greens can help prevent or heal a wide range of health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, colorectal cancer and atherosclerosis. A consistent helping of turnip greens may also prevent damage to the lungs due to smoking and secondhand smoke, and my personal favorite health benefit — may slow the loss of mental function.

Some varieties to consider:

'Hakurei' (F1) - A white-rooted turnip ready to harvest in 38 days with a sweet, mild flavor especially suited to eating raw or sliced into salads.

'Purple Top White Globe' - A traditional favorite in the South.

'Scarlet Queen' - These pretty red roots with red stems have a sweet flavor, crisp white speckled flesh and a spicy red skin.

'Seven Top' - Grown strictly for the greens that are reported to have a better flavor. The root is insignificant in this variety.

'Gold Ball' - A yellow heirloom turnip with a taste similar to its cousin the rutabaga.

Delvin Farms Turnips vegetable boxes

Seed Sources: Check with your local co-op or order from the Internet.

Some online sources are:
• johnnyseeds.com
• seedsofchange.com

Deer Repellants:
• I Must Garden - imustgarden.com
• Liquid Fence - liquidfence.com


Cindy Shapton writes, speaks, blogs and gardens with her canine helper Sweet Annie, who isn't really crazy about turnips. She is the author of The Cracked Pot Herb Book available at cindyshapton.com


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